Did you know many people don’t know they have AFib – or atrial fibrillation – until they have a stroke?
AFib is a type of arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. It occurs when the upper chambers of the heart – the atria – have chaotic electrical activity as opposed to a single coordinated wave. As a result, these upper chambers don’t push blood into the lower chambers of the heart – the two ventricles – with the timing or force that they should. This causes the heart to beat irregularly, and along with that, often too slowly or too quickly.
AFib is one of the most common heart issues we see at the Heart and Lung Institute at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and through our cardiology practices – including in Cape May County. That’s why we have a team of experienced electrophysiologists – cardiologists who specialize in diagnosing problems with the electrical system of your heart.
Your heart is the fabulous muscle responsible for pumping blood to meet all of your body’s needs. Just like a mechanical pump, it uses electricity to power and coordinate its activity, which we often take for granted until it stops working correctly. Think about the electrical system in your home. You might not know you have a wiring issue until an appliance shorts out – or worse – a fire breaks out.
Left untreated, AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, heart attack, and other serious and potentially fatal health issues. That’s why it’s so important to recognize symptoms and get care early.
Symptoms can include
- A fluttering or pounding feeling in the heart
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased ability to do exercise or do normal activities
Here’s how you can prevent or manage AFib:
- Limit alcohol intake. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
- Eat a balanced diet. Limit salty foods. Salt can raise your blood pressure, and contribute to congestive heart failure, both of which could cause you to go into AFib.
- Take your medications safely. Talk with your healthcare provider and pharmacist to make sure you are taking your medications correctly and on schedule. This includes medications to control your heart’s rhythm and rate, and blood-thinning medication to prevent clots from forming that could lead to a stroke. Setting a reminder on your phone or an alarm on your clock to remind you to take them can help.
- Manage stress. I know, you’re rolling your eyes on this one. Life is stressful. Make the time to consciously do something that makes you healthy and happy.
- Exercise regularly. Whether you are inside or outside, get up and get moving. This also helps you to manage stress and other chronic health issues that contribute to AFib.
- Get enough sleep. Getting sound sleep is important to your overall wellbeing. Did you know sleep apnea is a symptom of AFib? Tell your healthcare provider if you’re having trouble sleeping. Our Heart and Lung Institute pulmonologists are part of our Sleep Center team that helps diagnose sleep disorders.
- Maintain regular appointments with your healthcare provider. Your primary care provider, cardiologist and other specialists can help you manage chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure and heart valve diseases. All of these conditions can contribute to new, or worsening AFib.
- Protect yourself from getting sick. Viral, respiratory and other illnesses can contribute to AFib. Make sure you get the flu shot and that you are up to date on other vaccines. Stay home if you are sick or not feeling well. Avoid others who are sick.
- Heed your body by seeking care. If something doesn’t feel right, call your healthcare provider. If you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, call 911 immediately. Heart attack symptoms include chest pain or discomfort; feeling weak, light-headed or faint; pain or discomfort in your jaw, neck back or one or both arms or shoulders; and shortness of breath or trouble breathing. Stroke symptoms include sudden trouble with balance, coordination and walking; sudden blurred eyesight or trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden numbness or weakness of your face or inability to smile; and sudden numbness or weakness in an arm or leg.
We use advanced technology and tests to diagnose and monitor AFib. Echocardiograms (ultrasound images of the heart), which we do in the offices and the hospital, give important structural pictures of the heart to check on its function. The portable Holter monitor, which you can wear at home, continuously records your heart’s rhythms as you wear it for 24 hours or longer. We might recommend you wear a small, water-resistant patch that records and stores your heart’s data for up to 14 days. We also use electrocardiograms (EKGs), blood tests, and chest X-rays to diagnose and monitor AFib. For some patients, we inject a tiny electronic chip under the skin of their chest to monitor their heart rhythm for longer periods.
Treatments can include medication, which is often the first option, especially if your AFib symptoms are mild or infrequent. We might insert a pacemaker for you. Innovative treatments we offer also include creating a 3D map of your heart and using it to deliver radiofrequency energy through a tiny catheter to treat small areas of your heart that cause the AFIB. This is called ablation. We might deliver electrical energy across your chest to restore normal rhythm through cardioversion. We offer many other minimally invasive and open procedures.
Every person’s experience with AFib is unique. That’s why we personalize care when diagnosing, monitoring, and treating AFib. AtlantiCare’s electrophysiologists work with you and your primary care provider to find the right treatment to restore your normal heart rhythm.
The Heart Institute at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center is the only full-service cardiac surgery program in the region. To learn more about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for AFib and other heart and lung issues, visit atlanticare.org/afib, or call 1-888-569-1000.