When Your Heartbeat Could be a Warning Sign of Danger Ahead

Author: Leslie Toldo

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common irregular heart rhythm.  The American Heart Association estimates between three and six million Americans are living with the arrhythmia. It is difficult to get an exact number of people affected because it is possible to have AFib and not realize it.

“Sometimes atrial fibrillation can be asymptomatic,” says McLaren Flint interventional cardiologist Dr. Hameem Changezi.

AFib typically causes heart palpitations, a fluttering feeling, or the sensation that your heart has skipped a beat, is beating too fast, or too slowly.  The palpitations may be accompanied by:

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Worsening shortness of breath.

“Atrial fibrillation can be intermittent- or paroxysmal- and it can be permanent,” Dr. Changezi said.  “People who have permanent atrial fibrillation always have an abnormal rhythm.” 

An abnormality in the top chambers of the heart is what causes it to beat irregularly, too fast, or too slow.

“In itself, it is not a life-threatening rhythm,” Changezi said, “However, it is associated with an increased risk of stroke. AFib causes one in seven strokes.  It is associated with a five-fold increased risk of ischemic stroke, which happens when blood supply to the brain is blocked because of a blood clot originating in the heart.”

According to the CDC, strokes caused by complications from AFib tend to be more severe than strokes caused by other underlying factors. That is why it is imperative for people who suffer from AFib to carefully monitor their symptoms and talk to their doctor about stroke risk reduction.

“People who have established intermittent AFIB at times can feel the palpitations, and it may not be a problem.  However, if accompanied by dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pain, it necessitates a trip to the emergency room, “Changezi said. 

For those who have never experienced it before, a sudden onset of AFib symptoms can be frightening.

“When accompanied by significant shortness of breath, AFib could be mistaken for a heart attack,” Dr. Changezi said.

Heart attacks and AFib also have many of the same risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • Vascular heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Advancing age

Other AFib risk factors include:

  • Thyroid disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • Smoking

There are multiple treatment options for AFib, including drugs that control heart rate and rhythm, blood thinners to prevent stroke-inducing clots from forming, and lifestyle changes that can help manage some of the risk factors.  In some cases, an AFib may need to have a procedure called an ablation, used to destroy abnormal tissue that impacts electrical signals in the heart.

“Ablation is generally for people whose AFib cannot be controlled with medication and who have recurrent symptomatic atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Changezi said.

Because AFib can be symptomless, you should talk with your doctor about your risk. If you experience heart palpitations, especially if any other AFib symptoms accompany them, seek medical attention.  

AFib is blamed for more than 454,000 hospitalizations and 158,000 deaths across the country each year.  The CDC estimates the AFib rate will rise dramatically over the next decade.

To schedule an appointment with a McLaren Flint cardiologist, visit mclaren.org/flintheart