Atrial fibrillation is the most the common type of arrhythmia, affecting more than two million Americans. It occurs when the upper chambers of the heart—the atria—beat quickly and out of sync. This causes blood to collect in the chamber, where it may clot. If those blood clots travel to the brain, the patient will likely suffer a stroke. Over time, atrial fibrillation can also weaken the heart and lead to heart failure.
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest discomfort, dizziness and even fainting. People of all ages have atrial fibrillation, but it is a more common condition in people over 65.
In the video below, Dr. William Spear, a cardiologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center, discusses the symptoms, complications and treatment options of Artrial fibrillation.
How is it diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects that you have atrial fibrillation or another type of arrhythmia, you will likely be referred to a specialist who can make a definitive diagnosis. This specialist—an electrophysiologist—will conduct any number of studies to determine your exact type of arrhythmia:
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – is a test that records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms and detects heart muscle damage.
Echocardiogram – creates a two-dimensional picture of the cardiovascular system and can also produce an accurate assessment of the velocity of blood and cardiac tissue at any point using pulsed or continuous wave Doppler ultrasound.
Holter monitoring – records a continuous reading of your heart rate and rhythm over a 24-hour period (or more). You wear a recording device (the Holter monitor), which is connected to small metal disks on your chest. Doctors can then look at a printout of the recording to find out what causes your irregular heartbeat.
Transtelephonic monitoring – documents problems that may not be detected within a 24-hour period. The devices used for this type of test are smaller than a Holter monitor. One of the devices is about the size of a beeper, while the other device is worn like a wristwatch.
Cardiac Catherization/Interventions - are usually performed in a cardiac catheterization laboratory. In this procedure, a long, thin tube (called a catheter) is inserted through an artery in your leg and guided to your heart. A map of electrical impulses from your heart is sent through the wire to find out what kind of arrhythmia you have and where it starts. During the study, doctors can give you controlled electrical impulses to show how your heart reacts. Medicines may also be tested at this time to see which ones will stop the arrhythmia.
Treatments for atrial fibrillation are intended to break up blood clots, slow your heartbeat to a normal rate or destroy the tissue causing the problem. The severity of your condition and your age can also help to determine which treatment is most appropriate.
Medications - include beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and blood thinners that can slow the heart and break up blood clots.
Cardioversion - takes place under anesthesia. Paddles are placed on the chest and deliver an electrical shock that restores the normal heart rate and rhythm.
Catheter ablation (include hyperlink to Catheter ablation page) - is a non-surgical treatment that involves the insertion of a tube or catheter from an artery in the leg to the heart. Doctors send an energy source, such as radiofrequency waves (radiofrequency ablation) or extreme cold (cryoablation), through the catheter to destroy the tissue causing the fast heartbeat.
Stereotaxis - allows doctors to perform catheter ablations using magnetic navigation, resulting in safer procedures and fewer complications.
3D intracardiac ultrasound - provides real-time, three-dimensional images of the left atrium, pulmonary veins and esophagus during ablative procedures, which increases safety and results in a more effective treatment.
Pacemaker - is a small device that continuously monitors heart rate and delivers an electrical impulse when needed to maintain a normal heart rate. Pacemakers are often used in combination with medications to ensure that the patient's heart rate does not slow too much.
Surgical maze procedure - is effective in treating patients who do not respond to medications or other less invasive treatments. Performed during open-heart surgery, the procedure involves creating scar tissue to block the triggers that cause atrial fibrillation.
How does Advocate Christ Medical Center make a difference?
Advocate Christ Medical Center is a proven leader in the diagnosis and treatment of atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias. We are one of the Midwest's busiest centers when it comes to performing catheter ablations and electrophysiology studies, as well as implanting defibrillator and pacemakers. Patients benefit from state-of-the-art edge minimally invasive technologies, such as Stereotaxis and 3D intracardiac ultrasound, available at only a few Illinois institutions.
Our team is led by some of the most experienced board certified electrophysiologists in the region. Together with cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons, they meet on a monthly basis to develop individualized treatment plans. Patients are guided through diagnosis, treatment and recovery by our clinical nurse coordinator. Our physicians regularly update referring doctors to ensure continuity of care and ongoing communication.
Whether a patient requires medication, a catheter-based procedure or surgical therapy, the doctors at Advocate Christ Medical Center provide compassionate care on the cutting edge.
What causes atrial fibrillation? Most people who have atrial fibrillation also have some form of heart disease. This can include hypertension, atherosclerosis and other heart conditions. About a third of atrial fibrillation patients do not have heart disease. The cause is not known for sure, but some factors may contribute to a person developing the condition, including:
Excessive caffeine, tobacco and/or alcohol use
What are the symptoms? Your doctor may be the first to notice the signs of atrial fibrillation. But, there are symptoms to be aware of, including:
Shortness of breath
What are the risk factors? Heart disease and age are two main risk factors for developing atrial fibrillation. About 1% of people in their 50s and 10% of people in their 80s have the condition.
If any medical treatments are ordered by my doctor, will my insurance cover them? Depending on the type of coverage, most commercial insurance carriers will pay the major share of the cost. You should always consult your insurance company to determine proper coverage.
Who provides the medical care? The team at Advocate Christ Medical Center is staffed by specialized electrophysiologists, nurses, and other specialists who have extensive experiencing treating patients with atrial fibrillation. You will remain under the care of your primary care physician and cardiologist while you are treated by the specialists at Christ Medical Center. To ensure that your physician is kept up-to-date, our team will provide ongoing reports on the progress you have made.