Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is the name of a particular type of irregular heartbeat affecting more than 1 million Americans. In AF, the atria (the two upper chambers of the heart) beat rapidly and unpredictably. Normally, all four chambers of your heart beat in the same rhythm, between 60 to 100 times every minute. If you have AF, the atria may beat as many as 400 times a minute.
What does AF have to do with stroke?
In AF, the irregular contractions of the left atrium cause blood to pool, which may result in the formation of clots. These clots can break loose and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. Stroke can cause permanent disability, coma, or death. If left untreated, AF can increase your stroke risk from 4 to 6 times. About 15 percent of all people who have a stroke have AF.
Who has AF?
AF is relatively rare in healthy people, but it can occur. AF is found most often n people over age 65 and in people who have heart disease or thyroid disorders.
How can I tell if I have AF?
AF often has no strong outward symptoms. Some people with AF will experience heart palpitations-often described as a "pounding", "racing", or "fluttering" heartbeat. In other people, the only symptoms of AF may be dizziness, faintness or light-headedness. Others may have chest pain ranging from mild discomfort to severe pain. And for yet another group, AF has no symptoms at all.
The only way to know for sure if you have AF is to have your doctor perform a painless test called an electrocardiogram (ECG). During and ECG, sensitive electrodes are placed on your chest. These electrodes pick up the electrical impulses generated within your hear, impulses that cause your heart to beat. The impulses are sent to a T.V. screen or a piece of paper called an ECG strip. By examining the specific pattern of electrical impulses, your doctor can tell for certain whether you have AF.
What can I do if I have AF?
Sometimes AF stops spontaneously. If it does not, doctors have several options for managing your AF. Whenever possible, the first treatment effort will be directed at cardioversion - restoring your heart's normal rhythm. This can be done either through the use of electrical stimulant or through medication. For many people, one or the other of these measure will work to permanently convert the heart to normal rhythm. For others, however, these measures are not successful. When cardioversion efforts don't work, AF treatment concentrates on protecting you from stroke-causing blood clots. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to prevent clots from forming or growing. An anticoagulant called warfarin (brand name Coumadin) is the drug of choice for long-term anticoagulation in AF patients. For patients under the age of 60 who have no other stroke risk factors, warfarin is not generally prescribed.
Information from five studies showed that anticoagulation with warfarin in patients with AF reduced risk by 45 to 86 percent, with low rates of complications. Only one third as many strokes occurred in AF patients receiving warfarin as in control patients. For patients unable to unwilling to take warfarin, aspirin is an alternative, though is probably less effective.
If your doctor has prescribed medication for you for AF, it's important to TAKE YOUR MEDICINE EXACTLY AS DIRECTED. Failure to take your AF medication properly can significantly increase your risk of stroke.
Source: The National Stroke Association. Used with permission.
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