Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment Options | For More Information
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the United States, with an estimated 3 million Americans living with this condition. AFib causes the heart to beat irregularly due to twitching, or fibrillating, of the top chambers known as the atria. This action usually results in a heart that beats at an unusually fast and irregular pace. Although not inherently life threatening on its own, AFib may lead to poor circulation and pooling of blood in the atria that significantly increases the chances of clot formation and ultimately, stroke. Atrial fibrillation may also lead to weakness of the heart and congestive heart failure.
While AFib can affect people of all ages, prevalence of the disease rises as we grow older. The condition most often develops in those over age 65. Atrial flutter (a-flutter) is another arrhythmia similar to atrial fibrillation that produces a slightly more organized but still abnormal heart beat. Often easier to treat than AFib, atrial flutter remains a potentially serious disease that puts patients at high risk for stroke. Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation contributors include:
- Alcohol use
- Thyroid disease
- High blood pressure
- Organic heart disorders, such as valve disease
- Lung disease
- Sleep apnea
Heart arrhythmias can be caused by many factors—or your heart’s electrical system may be misfiring for simply no known reason at all. For this reason a team approach to care is a distinguishing feature of the NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute, where we have long been recognized as pioneers in the treatment and management of this challenging heart disorder. Our comprehensive approach takes into account the many components that contribute to the development of atrial fibrillation by providing a multidisciplinary, all-encompassing, integrated team approach to care. We treat the whole patient rather than just the individual’s heart rhythm disorder. Close collaboration between myriad NorthShore specialists, from vascular medicine and sleep center experts to integrative medicine professionals, ensures a holistic approach to this complex health condition.
Involved in advancing therapies for this common condition, our investigators are also leading exciting clinical trials that make available cutting-edge AFib treatments to our community. We also partner with our Center for Personalized Medicine to help identify genetic biomarkers that may make you more susceptible to heart rhythm disorders in order to better diagnose and treat them should it be necessary.
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms
Some AFib symptoms may include:
- Heart palpitations
- Fast pulse rate
- Sensation of “fluttering” or skipped heart beats
- Shortness of breath
However, a significant number of patients don’t exhibit symptoms of AFib at all. Very often their AFib is discovered serendipitously either through an electrocardiogram or other diagnostic test or a general physical exam.
Diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation
NorthShore’s comprehensive AFib program offers all the latest diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to this disorder. Early diagnosis provides the best chances for effectively managing your AFib and reducing your risk of debilitating stroke. During your evaluation, one of our experienced board-certified cardiologists will ask you about your medical history and conduct a physical exam. Your NorthShore AFib specialist may also recommend one of several noninvasive diagnostic procedures, including EKGs and echocardiograms (ultrasound exams).
Your physician may employ sophisticated heart monitoring devices to provide additional diagnostic information. These devices can record your heart rhythms over time from one full day to weeks and even months as you go about your daily activities.
In some cases, more invasive testing may be required to complete your evaluation and treatment, including cardiac electrophysiology or ablation procedures to track down the electrical malfunction in your heart that is causing the arrhythmia and correct it. Available at NorthShore, this advanced diagnostic tool involves the insertion of a special electrode catheter into a blood vessel leading to the heart to pinpoint the source of your disorganized heart rhythm.
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment Options
Your NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute team will develop a personalized treatment plan for your atrial fibrillation depending on your unique needs and the specific nature of your condition. Because we work in a collaborative multispecialty environment, you can be assured that your care will be both seamless and all encompassing.
Early atrial fibrillation treatment often starts with medications to restore a more normal heart rate. Anticoagulation drugs also may be used to reduce the potential for blood clotting that could lead to stroke. One AFib treatment option for “resetting” your heart’s normal rhythm is cardioversion, a procedure that uses an electric shock.
At NorthShore, our experienced cardiac electrophysiologists and cardiovascular surgeons perform various minimally-invasive procedures to treat AFib. These options include:
- Catheter-based ablation. Radiofrequency ablation or cryoablation relies on hot and cold energy, respectively, to selectively destroy the cells causing the arrhythmia. Our specialists have pioneered techniques to perform these procedures “flouroless”-ly, without the use of X-ray radiation.
- Left atrial appendage occlusion. The catheter-based insertion of occluding devices into the chambers of the heart can help to prevent blood clotting and subsequently, stroke.
- Surgical Maze procedure. A surgical ablation may be performed in patients who also require valve or bypass surgery.
- Hybrid Maze procedure. This less-invasive technique is a collaborative procedure involving both a cardiac electrophysiologist and a cardiac surgeon. During the procedure, the two specialists work together to eliminate heart tissue causing abnormal electrical signals on both the inner and outer surface of the heart.
A regional research center for the international CABANA (Catheter-Ablation versus Antiarrhythmic Drug Therapy for Atrial Fibrillation) trial and the STOP Persistent AF trial, NorthShore is committed to providing the most effective AFib treatments for our patients.
For More Information
Please call 888.364.AFIB for more information on atrial fibrillation or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.