Bad Vibrations: The Dangers of Atrial Fibrillation

October 13, 2011

While not being able to keep up with your grandkids may seem a natural part of aging, it could be a sign of atrial fibrillation, the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm.

“Anyone can be at risk, but age is one major risk factor,” says Dr. Arfaat Khan, a board certified cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist who works with Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital’s cardiac team. “People as young as 20 may experience it, and above age 60 it is very common.”

Other major risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes and environmental factors such as drinking too much alcohol.

While some patients don’t have any symptoms, others may experience fatigue and shortness of breath as well as a racing heart. A normal heart beats at around 60 to 90 beats per minute. However, in a heart with atrial fibrillation, an electrical disturbance can cause the top chambers, the atria, to beat up to 500 times per minute.

“When it beats this fast, the heart doesn’t squeeze, it quivers,” Dr. Khan says.

While atrial fibrillation typically is not a life-threatening illness, it is a risk factor for stroke, given that the poor blood flow from inefficient pumping can cause blood clots to form and travel to the brain.

Once diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (EKG) test, treatment for atrial fibrillation will depend on a patient’s specific risk factors, but may include one of several types of medications to control heart rate or help prevent clots.

Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital also offers an atrial fibrillation clinic, which has been shown to help control the condition and prevent hospitalization for many patients. During these events, a team of heart physicians, nurse-practitioners and other health care personnel educate patients about the disease, provide a complete heart evaluation and discuss treatment options.