Your Blood Pressure and the Rhythm of Your Heart: Understanding AFib and Your Risk of Stroke
AFib sounds like something that a dishonest person would say. The truth is that atrial fibrillation (AFib) is no laughing matter.
It is a medical condition that affects the hearts of millions of Americans. In fact, it is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia.
To learn how to manage your risk, it is important to know a little about this condition. Read ahead to learn about the science of AFib and how to treat it.
The Truth About AFib
What is AFib? It is a form of arrhythmia, a type of condition that involves the electrical signals that regulate the beating of the heart. AFib causes the heart’s upper chambers (the atria) to beat in an uncoordinated fashion.
If left untreated, AFib can lead to serious complications, including stroke and death.
That doesn’t mean you can’t live a long and happy life, but it is important that you don’t just ignore it because this may lead to even bigger problems.
Cause of AFib
Anything that affects the structure, integrity, or function of the heart could potentially lead to AFib.
This includes any disorder that causes inflammation, ischemia (lack of oxygen), oxidative stress, or another type of damage.
These result in cardiac remodelling, a phenomenon consisting of structural and electrical changes in the heart. This messes with the electrical wiring of the heart, causing it to ‘short circuit’, so to speak. These erratic electric signals result in an irregular heartbeat.
Fibrillation refers to irregular, unproductive movements of the heart. They are the result of abnormal electrical activity.
Rarely, this can lead to cardiogenic shock, a condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood through the body.
AFib and Stroke
A stroke occurs when part of the brain is not receiving enough oxygen, usually due to inadequate blood supply. This can lead to severe neurological disease, coma, and death. Indeed, AFib is the leading heart-related cause of stroke.
This is because the irregular, chaotic movement of the heart creates turbulence in the blood within its chambers. This can inadvertently lead to coagulation (blood clot formation). The clot can then travel out of the heart and get stuck in an artery that supplies the brain, something called a thromboembolic stroke.
Some people have a higher risk than others.
Advanced age is one of the most important, yet unavoidable risk factors. There are also genetic factors that play a role, and sometimes no specific cause can be pinpointed.
There are a number of conditions that have been shown to increase your risk of AFib, many of which are preventable.
Any form of heart disease increases your risk of AFib. This includes congenital (genetic) and acquired conditions. Coronary artery disease, previous heart attack, and conditions that affect the valves are the most common offenders.
There is a well-defined, dose-dependent relationship between alcohol and the onset of AFib. Simply put, the more you drink, the higher your risk.
Even ‘moderate’ drinkers have an increased risk. In fact, AFib can occur after the kind of binge drinking that happens during holidays and parties. Physicians call this the “holiday heart syndrome“.
Studies show that almost half of American adults have high blood pressure (“hypertension”). High blood pressure can have serious consequences for the organs of the body. It can lead to skin problems, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and other conditions.
Not surprisingly, the increased pressure puts a lot of strain on the heart. AFib is just one of many potential heart problems that are caused or exacerbated by hypertension.
Thankfully, in many cases, hypertension can be treated with relatively simple lifestyle changes.
People with certain medical conditions can be at an increased risk, as well.
Inflammatory diseases of the heart, such as myocarditis and pericarditis, may often result in AFib. Endocrine diseases, such as hyperthyroidism and even untreated diabetes can increase your chance of getting AFib as well.
Last but not least, people with obstructive sleep apnea have four times the risk of the general population.
AFib is a multifactorial disease that can vary greatly in the way it presents itself. In most cases, it presents in periodic episodes, often following a trigger event. In others, it is almost always present.
In fact, many people show no symptoms at all. Other times, the signs are vague and/or nonspecific enough for people to ignore them.
However, this does not mean you are without risk. Here are common signs and symptoms to look for.
There are many possible causes of chest pain. The majority of cases are due to everyday things like some GI issues or even muscle soreness.
However, you never want to take a chance with anything that might involve the heart.
Heart palpitations are one of the most characteristic symptoms of AFib and other arrhythmias. Depending on the severity, they can be extremely disturbing for the individual.
People that experience them say it feels like their heart is ‘racing’ and/or ‘pounding’ out of their chest.
Sometimes, AFib can lead to seemingly unrelated symptoms.
People often present with nausea and dizziness during episodes. This can lead to vomiting if severe.
AFib can be a longstanding problem that leads to chronic fatigue. You may notice yourself getting tired much quicker than usual.
Finally, leg swelling is another non-specific sign of AFib, but it’s always worth mentioning to your doctor.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to treat AFib. They can be divided into several categories.
AFib treatment consists of treating underlying conditions, getting cardiac rhythm under control, managing symptoms, and proactively lowering your risk of complications, namely stroke.
The Age of Anticoagulants
Reducing your risk of stroke may require you to take anticoagulant drugs.
These prevent blood clots from forming within your heart and going to your brain.
Apixaban (sold commercially as Eliquis) is indicated for lowering your risk of stroke. Rivaroxaban (Xarelto) is an effective blood thinner with a similar mechanism of action.
Handling Your AFib
Just because you have AFib, doesn’t mean you can’t have a fab life. There are plenty of things you can do.
Most importantly, you have to control the modifiable risk factors. This means avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, eating right, and taking care of any health issues you may have.
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