At least 2.7 million Americans are living with atrial fibrillation, and many do not know it. But having an irregular heartbeat, easily treatable, can increase your risk of having a stroke by as much as five times.
"Most people don't know they have AFib. So, if you experience shortness of breath or palpitations, you should definitely follow up with your doctor," said Hakeem Jibawi, DO, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Specialty Physicians of Illinois, LLC, who chooses to practice at Franciscan Health.
The most common symptom of atrial fibrillation is heart palpitations, often indicated by a fluttering or shuddering sensation in the chest, and an irregular heartbeat.
Other signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:
The likelihood of you having atrial fibrillation increases with age.
"With this condition the top chambers of the heart (atria) go into a very fast, irregular rhythm where they are essentially no longer beating, but, instead, are quivering or fibrillating at about 300 to 500 times per minute," Jibawi said. "This throws off the normal one-to-one communication between top and bottom chambers. This also slows the blood flow in the atria and can cause tiny clots to form."
Those tiny clots could be pumped out of the heart, to the brain and block the blood supply in the brain, causing a stroke. Poor pumping increases the risk of clots forming in the heart chambers, particularly the left atrial appendage, which is located on the top of the heart.
"Stroke is its most feared complication," Jibawi said.
Once diagnosed, patients with atrial fibrillation may be treated with blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin). These drugs reduce the likelihood of experiencing those potentially dangerous blood clots within the heart that may cause a stroke.
According to the American Stroke Association, up to 80 percent of strokes in people with AFib can be prevented. Properly managing your AFib can reduce your risk of a stroke. Work with your cardiologist to develop a treatment plan for your health needs.
New technologies offer other stroke-prevention options for persons with atrial fibrillation.