Atrial fibrillation (or AFib) is a common form of atypical or irregular heartbeat (or arrhythmia). It is a serious heart condition diagnosed in approximately 6.4 million people in the U.S., and can lead to serious health issues such as stroke. Most people develop Afib when they are 65 years and older. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue. Some people have no symptoms at all.
The American Heart Association describes AFib as a quivering or irregular heartbeat. In AFib, the heart's upper chambers (atria) ‘quiver’ or contract irregularly and are not able to fully pump blood into the lower chambers (ventricles). This may make it hard for the heart to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the lungs and the rest of the body (heart failure) and may cause other serious problems such as blood clots in the heart that may break off to cause strokes. Still, even though a serious condition, living a normal and active life with AFib is possible especially if you follow some important points.
Talk To Your Doctor And Pharmacist
AFib is usually suspected during a visit to a doctor or other health care professional (by listening to your heart and feeling your pulse).
If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, it’s important that you follow up regularly with your doctor. People with AFib have a 5 times greater chance of getting a stroke than people without AFib. Other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure often accompany AFib and also affect the risk of stroke with AFib. So it’s important that you and your doctor come up with an appropriate treatment plan that may lower your risk of stroke and other complications.
Doctors may treat AFib with medications that control the heartbeat rate and rhythm or medications that prevent blood clots, or with procedures such as cardiac ablation (getting rid of tissue in the heart that may be causing abnormal heart rhythm). Follow your doctor’s advice and take your medications exactly as prescribed. If you think you may have trouble with this, or are concerned about side effects, speak with your doctor right away.
You can also speak to your pharmacist about taking your medications properly. One of the challenges in managing AFib and other health conditions is that some patients do not take their medication at all or they do not take them appropriately. Pharmacists can help you manage AFib in several ways—he or she can:
Review your medications with you and discuss why taking them is important
Explain how to take your medication properly
Check for interactions with other drugs or foods
Discuss potential side effects associated with your medications
Help you understand your treatment plan
If you think you experienced a medication adverse event, you should contact your healthcare provider and report it to FDA MedWatch.
Make Lifestyle Changes
Your healthcare team may recommend lifestyle changes. Many people with AFib are in their 60’s and older, and may have been living with health issues for a long time. While lifestyle changes can be difficult to take on, it may be easier to focus on the positive aspects—such as potentially feeling better and being better able to manage symptoms.
Here are some things you can do to manage AFib and control symptoms:
Quit smoking. Nicotine can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn can worsen AFib. To quit, speak with your doctor about smoking cessation programs that may work for you
Reduce alcohol intake. Alcohol can worsen AFib symptoms. Too much alcohol can increase the risk of bleed in people taking certain medications used to treat AFib
Limit caffeine. Caffeine can quicken your heart rate. Limiting stimulants that increase your heart rate may help reduce your risk for AFib. You may want to reduce your coffee intake to keep your heart rate more regular
Eat healthy. The American Heart Association recommends eating a heart healthy diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Talk with your doctor to find out if this may be the right diet for you
Exercise regularly. Exercise can help decrease your risk for heart disease and therefore may help prevent atrial fibrillation, but first ask your doctor about what kinds of exercises are appropriate for you. He or she may recommend a program to help you get started
Ask about vaccines. People with AFib may be prone to develop complications after respiratory infections. Be sure to ask your doctor about getting vaccinated against pneumonia and scheduling your yearly flu shot and other vaccinations that may be right for you
Get support. Include family and friends in your management of AFib. They can help you cope with the condition, manage stress and encourage you to stick to your treatment plan
Keep in mind that it’s important to understand AFib and to know what to do to manage it. Take the time to talk with your healthcare providers and family and friends about it. If you are living with AFib, it’s possible to live a normal active life—and what better way to do it than by staying healthy?
Phil Mendys is a Senior Director, U.S. Medical Affairs, Cardiovascular and Metabolic working as a Region Medical & Research Specialist for Pfizer.
After reading this article, how likely are you to speak with your healthcare providers about managing your atrial fibrillation?