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Shortness of breath. Heart palpitations. Fatigue. A flutter or a pounding feeling in your chest. Even feeling like you might pass out.
These are symptoms of atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), the most common type of heart arrhythmia in the United States. Nearly 2.7 to 6.1 million people here have it, and the number is expected to increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Paul DiGiorgi, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Shipley Cardiothoracic Center at Lee Health, hears all kinds of questions from patients who are diagnosed with A-Fib.
“Many people don’t even know they have A-Fib in the first place. So it’s a very common disease process, especially as you get older,” he says.
Your heart has four chambers—two in the front and two in the back. But when these chambers stop working together, that’s when patients are at risk for A-Fib.
“Sometimes you are going in and out of A-Fib, and you don’t even feel it. Many other people notice it right away. Patients present very differently,” Dr. DiGiorgi says.
Patients may feel shortness of breath, heart palpitations such as a rapid beat or pounding, fatigue, chest pain, or even pass out. “Unfortunately, the patients who don’t know they have A-Fib sometimes present for the first time with a stroke,” he said.
A-Fib is one of the most undertreated heart diseases—but a simple EKG test can determine if patients are living with the disease.
“The older you are, the more likely you are to have it. It is related to other issues, such as hyperthyroid, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea,” Dr. DiGiorgi said.
Common medical issues associated with A-Fib are lung problems such as COPD or pneumonia, sleep apnea, hormone imbalances or other cardiac diseases such as coronary artery disease and valvular heart disease.
Obesity can also put patients at risk for developing A-Fib—which is why doctors say if patients can improve their lifestyle, many times they can lower their risk.
“Things like smoking cessation, controlling your high blood pressure, controlling your diabetes, controlling your caffeine intake … these are all major components to success or failure of any treatment,” he said.
The good news is that there are several treatment options available.
“Medications and lifestyle changes, which are very important no matter what anybody does for you, and catheter ablations have been successful,” Dr. DiGiorgi said.
Another option is a minimally invasive procedure where a surgeon removes tiny areas of the heart that are causing abnormal electrical impulses.
“What is the right treatment plan for each individual? It has to be sort of a customized plan for each person. A-Fib is very complex, and everybody has a slightly different level of complexity with it, especially when you talk about how long they have had it,” Dr. DiGiorgi said.
Patients with A-Fib may have no symptoms, so if a patient has risk factors it’s important they meet with their doctor.
“First of all, get checked out because many people have A-Fib and don’t even know they have it. Number two, find out as much as you can about it and what your options are, and be aggressive about getting answers to your questions and getting solutions to your problems,” Dr. DiGiorgi said.
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