Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition when your heart doesn’t beat regularly, impacting its ability to pump blood.
“When your blood isn’t pumping, it tends to form clots,” says Joshua Greenberg, M.D., a cardiologist for Henry Ford Health. “As a result, when someone has AFib, blood clots can form in the heart and travel to different parts of the body.”
While some people develop symptoms that can indicate they have AFib, other cases might go undiagnosed – putting you at a greater risk for a cardiac event such as a stroke.
Diagnosing Cases Of AFib
“If you are experiencing symptoms of AFib, your doctor can often diagnose you at a routine wellness appointment,” says Dr. Greenberg. “This is why it is so important you are attending your regularly scheduled health screenings.” Symptoms your provider might look for include:
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeats
- Signs of heart failure (such as congestion, swelling and changes in appetite)
Certain lifestyle factors and health conditions can also put you at a greater risk for having AFib as well, including:
- Sleep apnea
- Heart disease
- Heart valve problems
Unfortunately, not everyone experiences these symptoms. In some cases, it isn’t until after someone has a stroke that they are diagnosed. The concern with that? People with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke in their lifetime – and may have more severe strokes than someone who doesn’t have AFib. As a result, it is important to make sure you are caring for your heart regardless of your age, risk factors and overall health.
How AFib Increases Your Stroke Risk
According to Henry Ford neurologist John Wald, M.D., when the heart is in AFib, there is a chance that blood clots can form and travel to the brain. These clots can block arteries and impair blood flow to the brain, which can cause a stroke.
“It can be hard to detect these blood clots, but when we do, treatment is important to reduce your risk of stroke going forward,” says Dr. Wald. “Fortunately, we have control over many of the major risk factors of stroke such as regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels, managing diabetes, and encouraging patients to quit smoking.”
Living With An AFib Diagnosis
When it comes to managing an AFib diagnosis, Dr. Greenberg notes there are three main ways cardiologists can help. These include:
- Preventing a possible stroke. Your doctor might offer a few options to help reduce your stroke risk. Blood thinner medications can prevent blood clots from forming in the first place. “Not everyone is a candidate for blood thinners, unfortunately,” says Dr. Greenberg. “This is often why people experience strokes – because they need to be on blood thinners but aren’t able to be.” Your doctor might also consider an operation called left atrial appendage occlusion. In this procedure, a small filter is placed inside the left atrium of the heart to prevent blood clots from entering into your bloodstream – reducing your risk of a stroke.
- Regulating the heart’s rhythm. To improve rhythm, a procedure called cardiac ablation is used. In this procedure, your cardiologist will safely eliminate parts of your heart that are creating irregular rhythms in efforts to create a normal rhythm pattern again.
- Controlling your heart rate. Medications can be taken to help balance your heart rate to a more normal level. In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to insert a pacemaker if you aren’t seeing health improvements with medication alone.
While AFib can be managed, it is a lifelong diagnosis. As you age, your condition can get worse. To prevent a decline in your health and abilities, make sure to attend regularly scheduled follow-up appointments with your cardiologist. Use these visits to talk with your doctor about any changes in symptoms or any new symptoms you might be experiencing. Your doctor can make any adjustments to your medications and dosages. If more intervention is needed, your doctor can talk with you about your options for surgery.
“Because of your increased risk for stroke with AFib, also be sure you are being regularly screened for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” says Dr. Wald. “Many strokes can be prevented if you take control of these levels, get plenty of exercise and quit smoking.”
If you have AFib, it is still important that you and those around you know how to identify the common signs of stroke. Use the acronym FAST (Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time) to remember that if you or anyone with you develops any of these symptoms, call 911 or get to a hospital as soon as possible. If you are having a stroke, the faster you can get to the hospital, the better your chances are for recovery.
To find a cardiologist or neurologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Joshua Greenberg is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.
Dr. John Wald is a neurologist and the Stroke Medical Director for Henry Ford Jackson Hospital.