Today, atrial fibrillation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, where an estimated 2.7 to 6.1 million people suffer from this arrhythmia.
Atrial fibrillation (sometimes called “AFib”) causes the heart to beat irregularly, often too quickly. The normal electrical impulses responsible for promoting heart beats fail to adhere to usual pathways and may discharge randomly.
The heart contains two upper chambers called “atria” and two lower chambers called “ventricles”. During atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers don’t pump blood smoothly into the ventricles. The atria beat irregularly.
This situation can create cardiovascular problems which may (or may not) produce symptoms. Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“the CDC”) estimates one in 50 people under the age of 65 suffer from AFib. However, this condition is far more common in the elderly, afflicting 9% of seniors.
Atrial fibrillation may develop for a variety of known or unknown reasons. Both obesity and high blood pressure may contribute to the development of AFib. The risk of experiencing this heart condition does increase significantly as someone ages, too.
Unfortunately, AFib can cause an elevated risk of stroke in patients. Since many potential causes exist for the development of heart arrhythmias, people with irregular heartbeats should consult with a qualified cardiovascular physician before undertaking treatment.
Treating Atrial Fibrillation
Treatments for AFib fall into three broad categories:
- Lifestyle modifications
Physicians use medications to address two atrial fibrillation problems. Some medications seek to normalize the rhythm and rate of the heart directly. Other medications strive to thin a patient’s blood in order to lower the chances of a blood clot or stroke occurring.
New Surgical Treatments
Medical researchers continue to search for new treatments for AFib. Some recent developments include the following:
Catheter Ablation Procedures: This type of surgery became available a few years ago. Surgeons thread a catheter into the left atrium of the heart, then cauterize areas of heart muscle discharging electrical impulses abnormally using radio frequency waves to create new scar tissue.
This technique seeks to prevent fibrillation by re-routing electrical impulses across the left atrium. Some patients require a second procedure a few months later. However, this surgery sometimes corrects an AFib using minimally invasive procedures.
Defibrillator Implantation: Implantable cardioversion defibrillators administer a shock to the heart muscle to slow down a very fast or chaotic heartbeat. In some cases of AFib, a physician may recommend implanting a defibrillator and heart monitoring device.
New generations of these devices can remain in constant communication with heart centers so cardiologists can monitor abnormal heart rates and act quickly to help prevent sudden heart failures.
Robot-Assisted Surgeries: Depending upon the condition of a patient’s heart valves, cardiologists may work to correct heart valve problems using robotic assisted minimally invasive ablation techniques.
Robots can perform surgical procedures with greater precision than human surgeons alone. These procedures sometimes occur in conjunction with surgical radiofrequency ablation treatments for AFib at some heart centers.
Electrical Cardioversion: Sometimes classified as non-surgical, this procedure uses strong external electrical stimulation to try and restore the heart to a more regular rhythm under highly controlled conditions.
New Medications Prescribed For Atrial Fibrillation
Today, physicians frequently prescribe a drug called verapamil (marketed as Calan) to help assist heart rhythm directly, in addition (or in lieu of) older medications such as aspirin, digoxin and diltiazem.
Ongoing research in this area means some physicians may offer patients very new treatment options.
Researchers also actively seek to develop new drugs to help patients with atrial fibrillation reduce the possibility of experiencing blood clots and strokes.
The drug licensing process in the USA typically requires years to complete. A physician may use combinations of older and newer medications, and in some cases, may adjust dosages periodically as a patient’s condition changes.
Some of these medications include two comparatively new blood thinning medications:
Rivaroxaban: A blood-thinning medication marketed as Xarelto, which has shown comparable results to warfarin (a historically widely used blood thinning medication marketed as Coumadin). Xarelto has been the subject of recent litigation.
Dabigatran: A recently licensed medication (in 2011) marketed as Pradaxa. This drug inhibits the blood clotting process.
New Lifestyle Modifications for Atrial Fibrillation
Today the weight of medical opinion holds strong that patients with AFib obtain benefits by quitting smoking.
Physicians may recommend eating a nutritious diet, pursuing a monitored exercise regimen, and seeking to maintain an optimal weight.
Since individual causes and cases of AFib sometimes differ, it makes sense to discuss lifestyle issues with your cardiologist.
The Road Ahead
Cardiologists continue to search for new, more effective treatments for AFib patients. Promising breakthroughs may occur in the near future as physicians and drug companies strive to develop cures for this condition.