by Phaedra McDonough

February is Heart Health Awareness Month for women. This educational month was established to help women gain a better understanding of their risks for heart disease. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common electrical abnormality of the heart. During atrial fibrillation the two upper chambers of your heart, called atria, are quivering instead of pumping and your heart rate becomes irregular. While in atrial fibrillation your heart works less efficiently. A serious complication of atrial fibrillation is a stroke, with women at significantly higher risk than men. Strokes from atrial fibrillation are related to the pooling of blood in the heart which forms clots that are pumped out of the heart and into the brain. Women are also less tolerant of this abnormal heart rhythm than men are and tend to exhibit more symptoms of AF: fatigue, weakness, palpitations, irregular heart rate, chest discomfort, dizziness or fainting and shortness of breath. Atrial fibrillation can come and go or become permanent. Women often have no idea they are in atrial fibrillation until it is diagnosed at a medical visit or after a stroke.

Phaedra McDonoughYour risk of developing atrial fibrillation is closely correlated to living with high blood pressure, heart valve disease, obesity, excessive alcohol use (more than2 drinks a day for women), sleep apnea, age(post-menopause), previous heart attack, smoking, congestive heart failure, diabetes and family history. The more you can control or eliminate your risk factors the less likely you will develop atrial fibrillation. Also the earlier you start treatment the easier it is to treat and the slower it will progress.

There are many different approaches for the treatment of atrial fibrillation. Much depends on how the abnormal rhythm is affecting your quality of life. You many tolerate atrial fibrillation if your heart rate is controlled with medications. If you cannot tolerate atrial fibrillation, despite heart rate control, attempts would be made to convert you back to your normal rhythm with medications called antiarrhythmics, electrical cardioversion and/or ablations. Occasionally, despite the above mentioned approaches your atrial fibrillation cannot be adequately controlled and you may require a pacemaker. Stroke risk is reduced by placing individuals on anticoagulants such as Aspirin, Warfarin or one of the newer blood thinning agents.

Atrial fibrillation is a common form of heart disease that your health care provider can readily diagnose and treat. If you don’t miss the signs, you can start treatment early.

If you have signs of a stroke go the emergency room immediately. Treatment within the first three hours after onset of symptoms is critical to limiting the amount of brain cell death or damage. Signs of a stroke include: sudden confusion or trouble speaking, sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg (especially if one sided), sudden trouble seeing, sudden difficulty with walking or dizziness, sudden severe headache of no known cause.

Phaedra McDonough is a Nurse Practitioner with The Center for Cardiovascular Health at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She can be reached at (802) 275-3699.