Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a form of irregular heartbeat that increases the risk of stroke. The condition is caused by a disorder in the heart’s electrical system and starts in the atria, the two upper chambers of the heart. AFib is the most common form of arrhythmia — a type of heart disease. Symptoms of AFib include heart palpitations, fatigue, shortness of breath, and light-headedness.
AFib is associated with ischemic stroke, which is caused by an obstruction of blood flow to the brain due to a blood clot — a kind of embolism. Irregular heartbeat from AFib causes inefficiencies in the pumping of blood, which can result in blood pooling in the heart and causing a blood clot. Blood clots that form in the left atrium of the heart can dislodge, travel to the brain, and cause a stroke.
AFib affects approximately 2.7 million people in the United States. Although people with AFib have an increased risk of stroke, blood clots, and heart failure, risks can be reduced with medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes.
The risk of stroke among people with AFib is four to six times greater than the general population. The risk increases with age and other factors. AFib is the cause of approximately 25 percent of strokes in people over 80 years old.
The CHA2DS2-VASc score is used to evaluate the risk of stroke with AFib. The term CHA2DS2-VASc stands for the conditions that affect risk: congestive heart failure, hypertension (high blood pressure), age, diabetes, stroke, vascular disease, and sex. Points are assigned to each risk factor. A higher point total indicates a higher risk of stroke:
The risk of stroke with AFib can be reduced with medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes.
Blood thinner drugs, also called anticoagulants, prevent blood from clotting and can reduce the risk of stroke in people with AFib by as much as 60 percent. However, blood thinners increase the risk of heavy bleeding from injury and internal bleeding, including intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding under the skull), which can be life-threatening.
The most common blood thinner is warfarin (Coumadin), which can be effective in reducing the risk of stroke. It can also be difficult to manage because it interacts adversely with many other drugs and foods.
A newer class of blood thinners — direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs) — have been shown to have less risk of intracranial hemorrhage, gastrointestinal bleeding, and other forms of bleeding. DOACs used for the treatment of AFib include dabigatran (Pradaxa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and apixaban (Eliquis).
AFib is caused by abnormalities in the heart’s electrical system, in which the signals for heartbeats do not function properly. Surgical procedures can block problematic signals and restore a regular heartbeat.
Ablation, or catheter ablation, is a minimally invasive procedure in which a small tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin to reach the heart. A tiny device uses heat (radiofrequency) or freezing (cryoablation) to create scars to disable areas of the heart muscle that may conduct abnormal signals.
Ablation is associated with a number of risks, such as infection, damage to blood vessels or the heart, blood clots, and radiation exposure.
The maze procedure, also called the Cox maze procedure, is a more elaborate and invasive form of ablation conducted as open-heart surgery. The procedure is usually only done when someone with AFib requires another form of invasive cardiovascular surgery, such as coronary bypass or heart valve surgery
In one study, the maze procedure had an 85 percent success rate after 10 years. It is considered a highly effective treatment for AFib when another heart surgery is indicated. The procedure has risks associated with open-heart surgery and general anesthesia, including infection, organ damage, stroke, and life-threatening complications.
The Watchman device is a tiny pouch implanted in the heart to trap blood clots that may form in the left atrial appendage. The device is only appropriate for people whose AFib is nonvalvular, meaning it does not involve heart valves. The Watchman is considered as effective as some blood thinners, and it may be an option for people who cannot take blood thinners.
The Watchman is inserted through a catheter in a vein near the groin. Risks include misplacement of the device, a buildup of blood in the heart, and stroke.
Lifestyle modifications can help prevent or reduce incidents of AFib and the risk of stroke. Some of the most effective lifestyle changes for AFib include:
Stick to your treatment plan for AFib to help reduce your risk of stroke. Your treatment plan may include oral medications that you take once or more per day. In addition to blood thinners, you may be prescribed antiarrhythmic medications, such as amiodarone (Cordarone), dronedarone (Multaq), or flecainide (Tambocor). You may also be prescribed other types of medications like beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers.
It is important to adhere to medication schedules and discuss any concerns with your doctors. Talk to your cardiologist about surgical procedures, and be sure you understand your options for treating AFib and reducing your risk of stroke.
Your health care team can refer you to other practitioners who may be helpful in the management of AFib, including nutritionists, physical therapists, or psychotherapists.
It’s important for you and your loved ones to recognize the warning signs of a stroke so you can get immediate medical attention should you need it. You can remember the warning signs of a stroke using the acronym FAST:
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