Helping patients with atrial fibrillation thrive

Left untreated, atrial fibrillation can cause life-threatening complications, such as stroke or heart failure.

The human heartbeat is steady and predictable. At rest, the heart beats at about 60 to 100 beats per minute, providing much needed oxygen and nutrients to the organs of the body.

But for millions of people, a steady and predictable heartbeat has been replaced by an irregular or extremely rapid one. These abnormal heart rhythms are called arrhythmias, and the most common form is atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

INCREASED RISK

A healthy heart is controlled by a single natural pacemaker called the sinus node. The sinus node generates clear electrical impulses to tell the upper and lower chambers of the heart when to contract.

An arrhythmia may be very brief – a single skipped heartbeat, or even a faint fluttering in the chest or neck. It can also be more pronounced with an unexplained racing of the heart that can last from a few moments to several days. If it’s severe enough, or lasts long enough, arrhythmia can cause fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pain.

AFib occurs when multiple locations in the right and left atria, or upper chambers of the heart, begin firing random electrical signals that compete with those generated by the sinus node. These conflicting signals cause confusion for the heart, where the upper and lower chambers don’t work together properly to pump blood.

“With AFib, the blood in the heart is not emptied effectively, which leads to poor blood flow,” says Thuy Le, M.D., cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist at Orange Coast Memorial. “This remaining blood may pool and form a clot. If this clot breaks free, it can travel to the brain, causing a stroke.”

In fact, patients with AFib have a five times greater risk for a stroke than those who don’t have AFib.

BEING MINDFUL

The incidence of AFib generally increases with age, but there are many contributing factors, including being overweight and having sleep apnea. Chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease also increase risk, as do a history of heart attacks.

AFib tends to be progressive. At first, patients may experience just a single episode randomly. Over time, it begins to increase in frequency, and can even develop very rapidly. Yet because many people experience no symptoms, AFib often goes undiagnosed.

“A delayed diagnosis means a delay in treatment. And left untreated, AFib can cause a stroke or congestive heart failure,” says Dr. Le. “Patients must see their physician if they suspect anything at all.”

RESETTING RHYTHM

Once AFib is diagnosed, Dr. Le and the expert team of cardiac specialists at Orange Coast Memorial work together to quickly manage the AFib to prevent potential complications.

To regulate the heartbeat, treatment options range from medication management to minimally invasive ablation procedures, where select cells are destroyed – or ablated – to prevent them from conducting unwanted electrical impulses.

Cardiac specialists at Orange Coast Medical Center use cryoablation, a procedure where extreme cold, instead of heat, destroys problem cells. During cryoablation, a tiny, deflated balloon is threaded through a catheter into the upper left heart chamber. Once in place, the balloon is inflated, cooled to sub-zero temperatures, and applied to the areas that initiate the erratic signals. In a matter of minutes, the extreme cold creates circular scars that block electrical impulses.

“This procedure is fast, safe and very effective,” says Dr. Le.

For those who require further intervention, Orange Coast Medical Center also offers robotic-assisted minimally invasive Maze surgery. Through small keyhole incisions, physicians can correct the electrical irregularity caused by AFib, without the trauma that accompanies traditional heart surgeries. For patients, this means fewer complications, faster recoveries, and less scarring.

“Coupled with oral anticoagulation, or blood thinning, medications for stroke prevention, all of these procedures allow patients to live full, healthy lives,” says Dr. Le.

For more information, please call (714) 378-7207, or visit our section on Heart and Vascular Care.