What you need to know about living with AFib

Rohit Malhotra, MD, FACC

When we walk upstairs with a heavy box or play sports in the heat, our hearts can beat faster than we’re comfortable with. But if you find this happening more often than usual, it could mean something more serious, like atrial fibrillation (AFib). 

According to the American Heart Association, there are more than 2.7 million Americans living with AFib. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that 12.1 million people in the United States will have AFib by 2030.

Although many Americans are living with AFib, it can be deadly if not managed properly.

Rohit Malhotra, MD, FACC, is a cardiac electrophysiologist at UVA Cardiology, a department of Culpeper Medical Center, who specializes in treating conditions involving irregular heart rhythms. He answers some commonly asked questions and shares guidance on how to successfully manage AFib.

What is atrial fibrillation?

“Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type of treated heart arrhythmia – a condition when the heart beats too slowly, too fast or in an irregular way,” said Malhotra.

The heart is comprised of two pumping systems – left and right – and each side has two chambers – an upper (atrium) and a lower (ventricle). When blood pumps through the heart, it does so in a rhythmic pattern.

AFib occurs when the upper chambers and lower chambers are not in sync, causing the heart to beat irregularly, sometimes dangerously fast or slow.

What are symptoms of AFib?

“The most common symptom of AFib is a fluttering heartbeat, almost like you have butterflies in your chest,” Malhotra said. “The abnormal firing of electrical impulses causes the atria to quiver or tremor which produces that feeling of fluttering.” 

Other symptoms can include: 

  • Fatigue

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Thumping in chest

  • Dizziness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakness

  • Fainting or confusion

  • Fatigue when exercising

  • Sweating

  • Chest pain or pressure*

*Note: Chest pain or pressure is a medical emergency. Please call 911 immediately if you are experiencing this symptom.

What are the risk factors for AFib?

“Risk for AFib increases with age, as well as those with high blood pressure and obesity,” said Malhotra. “White Americans are at higher risk than others.”

Other risk factors include diabetes, heart disease, moderate to heavy alcohol use and smoking.

What are the treatment options?

Malhotra noted that AFib can be diagnosed using an electrocardiogram (EKG), stress testing, an echocardiogram, and monitoring.

Once AFib is diagnosed, the biggest factors to consider are preventing blood clots, stroke and heart failure, since those with AFib are at an increased risk for these conditions.

Treatment focuses on symptoms and maintaining a safe heart rate and not letting it get too high when exercising or doing everyday activities.

“We can also consider medications like beta blockers and calcium channel blockers to help control heart rate, and blood thinners to prevent blood clots,” Malhotra said.

Surgical options including ablation or an electrical cardioversion – a procedure that “resets” the heart rhythm – may be recommended in some cases.

However, every case of AFib is different. Patients should talk to their cardiologist about possible treatment options.

So, what does this mean?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help manage AFib and improve heart health overall.

Employing an exercise routine that is within your limits, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, and monitoring preexisting chronic conditions are only some examples of how to live a healthy lifestyle.

“Being diagnosed with AFib can be scary at first, but it doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the activities and exercise you enjoy,” said Malhotra. “Talk to your cardiologist and primary care provider to establish the best plan to manage your AFib.”

For more information about cardiac care in Culpeper, visit NovantHealthUVA.org/uvacardiology.

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