September is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Awareness Month. AFib is an abnormal or irregular rhythm affecting the upper chamber of the heart, and according to the American Heart Association it affects 2.7 million Americans. It is an electrical problem and is diagnosed and treated by an electrophysiologist. At Arkansas Heart Hospital, Dr. Monica Lo is an electrophysiology specialist who treats a variety of heart rhythm disturbances, including AFib. The two factors she focuses on in the management of AFib is stroke prevention and how to correct AFib. Check out our Q&A with Dr. Lo to learn more about about AFib symptoms and how to treat AFib.
Q: First off, how do I know I have AFib? What are the AFib Symptoms?
A: It’s interesting, people detect their AFib with different symptoms. When you think about an irregular rate or rhythm, not everyone has palpitations with AFib. They can have shortness of breath, swelling or dizziness because the heart rate is fast, or it could even be its normal rhythm. We detect it with regular checkups, through an EKG. If something is abnormal, then you go to your doctor and they listen to your heart and if they hear something, you possibly get a monitor. It affects people of all ages. I see people in their teens to those in their 90s. The cause is different in different populations.
Q: Is there a common risk factor?
A: Age is the most common risk factor. Over 20 percent of people over 80 have AFib. For a young person, we think about their thyroid. Binge drinking or “holiday heart” can cause AFib, though there is some genetic predisposition. There is a wide range of people who are affected.
Q: Are people at risk for having a stroke if they have AFib?
A: Stroke prevention is very, very important. You don’t want to ignore AFib because the most devastating thing I see is somebody showing up with a stroke and that’s their first diagnosis.
Q: Is this a new condition?
A: People did ignore AFib for quite a while. In medical school, we were taught that slowing down the heart works just as well as converting people from AFib to a normal rhythm. Which isn’t true anymore. We have better tools, better diagnostics, we’re more aware of it and we are more aggressive in managing it.
Q: Is this a condition that can be corrected?
A: Everyone is different. First, you want to find if there are any reversible causes. If it’s hyperthyroid where your thyroid hormone is high, you fix that and you fix the AFib. If you know certain triggers like binge drinking, then avoid that. We individualize each patient’s care and try to find a medication that’s effective based on the patient profile. If they have heart failure, there are certain medicines they can’t take. If they have heart disease, there are certain ones they can’t take. There is a way to get off the medication by doing a procedure, like an ablation, which targets the veins in the lungs that have the abnormal electrical firing that goes into the left top chamber of the heart. To calm down those electrical signals you can use freezing or cauterizing. Everyone is different, but the earlier we can get those patients the more successful it is and the more likely it is that we can completely get them off the medication.
To learn more about your heart health and what affects it, check out the rest of our From The Heart blog posts.