Atrial Fibrillation and Structural Heart Disease

If you have atrial fibrillation (AFib), you may need to take blood thinners to lower your risk of stroke. But not everyone can take blood thinners because they may cause serious bleeding. At Henry Ford Hospital, we’re here to help.

At the Center for Structural Heart Disease, our structural heart team specializes in minimally invasive procedures to lower your risk of stroke due to atrial fibrillation. Together, we can help you safely manage AFib and improve your quality of life.

What Is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is a problem with the heart’s electrical system that causes an irregular heartbeat.

In AFib, the upper chambers of the heart (atria) fibrillate, which means that they contract very rapidly with no regular pattern. The atria pump out of sync with the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles). This lack of coordination causes blood to pool in the atria, instead of flowing properly into the ventricles. Blood also pools in the left atrial appendage (LAA), a tiny pouch attached to the left atrium.

Atrial flutter is another type of arrhythmia. Although atrial flutter has a steady pattern, it causes the atria to beat too fast. Like AFib, atrial flutter slows the blood pumping from the atria to the ventricles, which results in blood pooling in the atria and LAA.

Atrial fibrillation and risk of stroke

AFib and atrial flutter can increase your risk of stroke due to blood clots. The slow-moving blood that pools in the atria and LAA is more likely to cause blood clots to form. If a blood clot is pumped out of the heart, it can travel through the bloodstream to the brain, where it can cause a stroke.

To lower your risk of developing blood clots, you can take anti-coagulant medications (blood thinners) such as Coumadin® (warfarin), Eliquis® (apixaban) or Pradaxa® (dabigatran). However, some people cannot take these medications because they can cause severe bleeding.

Medical research shows that with AFib, blood clots form most often in the LAA. For people with AFib or atrial flutter who cannot take blood thinners, we offer minimally invasive procedures to close the LAA and reduce the risk of stroke.

Causes of atrial fibrillation

The most common cause of AFib and atrial flutter is damage to the heart’s structure or electrical system. Possible causes of the damage include:

Heart conditions and problems:

  • Congenital (present since birth) heart defects
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart valve problems
  • Previous heart surgery

Other health conditions:

  • Diabetes, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) or other metabolic imbalance
  • Excessive use of stimulants, such as alcohol, caffeine, drugs or tobacco
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Inflammation caused by illness or infection
  • Lung diseases
  • Sleep apnea
  • Stress due to pneumonia, surgery or other illnesses

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

The most common symptom of AFib is heart palpitations, the feeling that your heart is beating too hard or fast, fluttering or skipping a beat. Other symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness, fainting or confusion
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Shortness of breath

Diagnosing your risk of stroke with atrial fibrillation

At the Center for Structural Heart Disease, our experienced specialists work quickly to evaluate your health, so that we can develop a customized treatment plan to lower your risk of stroke.

We begin our evaluation process with a thorough assessment. During your first visit, we meet with you to:

  • Perform a complete physical exam
  • Discuss your symptoms
  • Review your family and personal medical history
  • Review any previous tests or imaging studies

We may recommend further testing to gather information about your heart anatomy to guide your treatment planning. Read about the advanced tools we use in our diagnosis process.

Henry Ford: advanced treatment for structural heart disease

If you have AFib or atrial flutter and cannot take blood thinners, we offer procedures to close the LAA to lower your risk of stroke due to blood clots. After our comprehensive evaluation, our team of specialists meets to discuss your case and recommend the best procedure for you.

Our treatment therapies for LAA closure include:

3D imaging and printing

We use advanced 3D technology to plan the procedure to close the LAA. We create an exact replica of your heart anatomy and use the model to walk through your procedure before it begins. That means a safer, shorter procedure, with less pain and a faster recovery. Find out how we use 3D imaging and printing in planning LAA closures.

Other minimally invasive heart procedures

Our interventional cardiologists (specialists in minimally invasive cardiac catheterization) are experts in the latest procedures to close the LAA. We have extensive expertise in using a catheter (thin, flexible tube with micro instruments) inserted through a blood vessel to access the heart in a variety of ways.

We specialize in procedures to implant devices that close the LAA—the WATCHMAN™ device and the LARIAT® suture—without the need for open-heart surgery. Learn more about these devices and our other minimally invasive heart procedures.

Comprehensive care for atrial fibrillation at Henry Ford

Our skilled physicians have extensive expertise in diagnosing and treating all types of AFib and other arrhythmias. You will find advanced care at our clinics throughout southeastern Michigan, close to home and work. If you have more advanced AFib, we offer specialty care at the Henry Ford Atrial Fibrillation Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit campus.

Minimally invasive heart treatment at Henry Ford: what to expect

At the Center for Structural Heart Disease at Henry Ford Hospital, our team focuses on providing the best possible outcomes for your health, with a compassionate touch. Learn more about what to expect throughout your care journey.

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