“Whether working or resting,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “if you notice that your heart races and flutters, don’t ignore it. You may have atrial fibrillation or AFib, for short.”
What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. During instances of AFib, the heart rate– normally 60 to 100 beats a minute – ratchets up to 100 to 175 beats a minute. This causes the atria, the heart’s two upper chambers, to beat rapidly and out of sync with its two lower chambers, the ventricles.
“AFib increases risk for stroke and heart failure,” says Sabitoni. “Prompt medical attention is essential.”
Some people with AFib do not know that they have the condition until it is discovered during a physical examination. Others experience symptoms that include:
- Palpitations (racing heartbeats)
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of weakness and fatigue
- Decreased blood pressure
- Chest pain
AFib can be periodic or chronic, and the likelihood of developing it increases with age. Of the more than two million Americans who have AFib, most are in their 60s and 70s. With the country’s population growing older, health care expenditures related to AFib – already in excess of $6 billion annually – are likely to rise. As many as 12 million people are expected to have AFib by 2050.
In addition to age, risk factors that can contribute to AFib include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart attacks
- Abnormal heart valves
- Heart defects with which one is born (congenital
- Previous heart surgery
- An overactive thyroid gland or other metabolic imbalance
- Consuming stimulants: alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, certain medications
- Slower than normal pulse (bradycardia)
- Sleep apnea
- Emphysema or other lung diseases
- Viral infections
- Stress due to pneumonia, surgery or other illnesses
- Family history of AFib
Resetting the heart rate to a normal range is the goal of AFib treatment. The preferred method, cardioversion, is carried out with medications or through electrical shock using paddles or patches. Surgery, of which there are several procedures, is another option.
Even after treatment, AFib can recur. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that can help make future episodes less likely. These may include reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol, using less salt, increasing physical activity and quitting smoking. You may also need to avoid over-the-counter (OTC) medications that contain stimulants; cold medications with the decongestant, pseudoephedrine are one example. As with any medication, always read the label before making a purchase and discuss any questions with your pharmacist.
Additional information about AFib and other heart conditions is available on the American Heart Association (AHA) website. You can also call the AHA at 1-800-242-8721.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]