Dudley Hudspeth, MD, is a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon. He practices at Banner Heart Hospital
Question: What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Answer: Atrial Fibrillation (AFIB) is the most common Cardiac Arrhythmia. It affects 1-2 percent of the U.S. population. It is characterized by an irregular heart beat, which results from abnormal electrical signals originating in Atrial Cardiac tissue and traveling in circles around the Atria, eventually escaping to affect the contraction of the strong Ventricular muscle as well.
There are two basic forms of Atrial Fibrillation: intermittent and permanent.
Intermittent AFIB begins as a single episode that lasts from minutes to hours and eventually ends, but recurs from time to time. Episodes may be induced by particular stress, metabolic disturbances or other illnesses. Most patients with AFIB start with intermittent episodes and progress to permanent AFIB.
With permanent AFIB, the heart rhythm is chaotic all the time. This usually results in long term irreversible changes in the heart structure, which lead to decreasing heart function and an overall decline in cardiac and general health.
It is important to note that AFIB is usually a marker of other cardiac disease. Seventy percent of patients with AFIB have structural heart disease, which is a significant problem with the blood supply to the heart (coronary arteries), heart valves or the septal walls, which separate the chambers of the heart. So testing to find and treat these conditions is important.
The two most significant consequences of longstanding AFIB are stroke and death. It is very clear from many sources that if you have AFIB the risk of death is increased 50-100 percent. While that statistic is frightening, most patients are even more concerned about the roughly 800 percent increased risk of stroke associated with AFIB. When you learn that 95 percent of stroke sufferers do not make a full recovery, the concern of stroke is frequently the focus for most patients.