Tick tock. The steady, reliable motion of a fine Swiss watch. Many of us expect that kind of perfection from our own hearts. From before birth and throughout our lives many of us are never aware of our hearts, assuming that they beat steady and true. But arrythmias of the heart are far more common than imagined. And sooner or later most of us have experienced a skip, a double beat, palpitations; some of us have murmurs or even mitral valve prolapse.
Some arrythmias can be deadly. Ventricular fibrillation, for example, is responsible for thousands of sudden deaths in America each year. Even the word "fibrillation" sounds a little scary...it's a word that sounds like what it does...jiggles, shakes, vibrates, races.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common cardiac arrythmia. It is estimated that between 2 and 3 million Americans have it or know someone who does - usually a parent or someone older, although atrial fibrillation or "afib" can occur any age. There is much to know and learn about this arrythmia. But why should you care?
Well, for starters, you may have it and not know you have it. Many people with afib have no symptoms. You may have periods of atrial fibrillation and periods of a normal sinus rhythm, known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.
If you have atrial fibrillation, you are at a significantly higher risk of having a stroke. It also has less symptoms, such as tiredness and anxiety, or a general feeling of malaise. This leads to irregularity in the impulses that go to the ventricles, which actually generate your heartbeat.
In afib, the normal regular electrical impulses in your heart, which come from the sinoatrial node, become disorganized. You may notice palpitations, or you might become more breathless than usual when you walk or exercise. But, sometimes, afib only makes itself known during a routine doctor's visit, or, more ominously, with a stroke. So, take a moment to ask yourself what do you need to know about atrial fibrillation.
What can you do about it, if you are diagnosed with it? How can you help a loved one who has been diagnosed with afib?
In future columns we'll explore everything you need to know about this heart arrythmia and all of the ways in which it is treated and, yes, even cured.