Health Victories

September marks awareness month for common heart arrhythmia

Written by Chris Mullooly

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia, and Augusta University Health is taking opportunities this September to raise awareness about the growing number of patients with this irregular heart beat and the risks involved with it.

More than 2.5 million people in the U.S. have atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is an irregular heartbeat or condition in which the atria (top chambers of the heart) do not beat or contract in a strong, rhythmic way. While AFib is typically not a life-threatening condition, complications from the arrhythmia can include blood clots, stroke and heart failure can become deadly.

Allison Tihey, AFib Nurse Coordinator at AU Health, says AFib can cause many different symptoms including pounding, racing, fluttering or palpitations in the chest, shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness, dizziness, or simple fatigue. If you experience these, you should see a doctor right away.

“Seeing a healthcare provider is extremely important because having atrial fibrillation places a person at a five times greater risk for having a stroke than those who don’t have it,” said Tihey.

Some risk factors for AFib include heart problems like high blood pressure, heart failure, heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, obesity, and more. Some of these can be controlled through medication, diet or exercise. Tihey says that by seeing your healthcare provider regularly, being aware of these risk factors and controlling them may prevent Afib from developing.

“Prescribing medications and taking them as instructed are extremely important for the treatment of atrial fibrillation and can be rate and/or rhythm control and blood thinners, also called anticoagulants,” said Tihey.

Rate control medications help maintain a lower heart rate and prevent a racing heart, while rhythm control medications help keep the heart in a normal rhythm. The blood thinners help to prevent clots from forming which could cause a stroke.

Treatment plans for those that have atrial fibrillation depends on the symptoms and how long the patient has had AFib. Tihey says there are ways if you have AFib to make the symptoms go away with certain treatments, although AFib is not 100% curable.

“Controlling risk factors and learning what can possibly trigger AFib can help improve long-term management of the abnormal heart rhythm,” said Tihey. “Once a person determines their trigger, they can learn to manage it or modify their behavior to reduce the chances of going into AFib.”

A regular check-up is important to for those with AFib who are not symptomatic, since it does not exclude them from being at risk for a stroke. A healthcare provider can diagnose irregular rhythms by listening with a stethoscope and having an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to determine the heart rhythm.

AU Health provides quality care for those with AFib. The hospital received the Get With The Guidelines Gold Achievement Award from the American Heart Association in 2019, 2020, and 2021 for its AFib care. This means the hospital reached a goal of treating patients with 85 percent or higher compliance to core standard levels of care for two consecutive calendar years.

When Afib is diagnosed early, healthcare providers can evaluate stroke risks to determine what treatments are needed to lower the risks for having a stroke. Atrial fibrillation is serious – especially when not managed – but through education, early detection, and keeping it under control is key.