Help Your Heart Stay in Rhythm

Author: Sujoya Dey, MD, FACC Cardiac Electrophysiologist

This year, as I picked out my Valentine’s Day cards, I took special notice of all the phrases involving the heart which we turn to when we want to express our love — “I love you from the bottom of my heart” or “You’ve stolen my heart.”

Because I am a cardiac electrophysiologist, a couple of them especially piqued my interest. “My heart skips a beat when I'm around you” and “You make my heart go aflutter.”

To most of us, these are simply sentimental, romantic phrases. However, that is not the case if you have atrial fibrillation, a common form of heart rhythm abnormality in which irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations are some of the major symptoms. Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, affects 3 to 6 million Americans — that’s almost one in 10 over age 65. In AFib, an electrical disturbance in the upper chambers of the heart disrupts the heart’s normal rhythm. This causes the heart to beat too slow or too fast and in an irregular way, causing a slowdown of blood flowing into the lower chambers. This can cause clotting which significantly increases a person’s risk of stroke.

AFib can occur in brief episodes, frequently, or become a permanent condition. About one-third of people affected do not have any symptoms and find out only from a physical exam or EKG. Others first become aware by experiencing symptoms such as an irregular heartbeat, a rapid or pounding heartbeat, lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and in some cases chest pain.

What causes AFib? Aging and high blood pressure are two of the top risk factors with high blood pressure accounting for 14% to 22% of cases. Other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, heart failure, ischemic heart disease, hyperthyroidism, stress, and alcohol intake.

Abnormal heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation, are not life threatening but the side effects and complications can be. If you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms of AFib, make an appointment with your primary care physician or cardiologist. Untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart related deaths and means a four to five times higher risk of stroke.

A number of treatment approaches are available including lifestyle changes, medications, and the use of the latest procedural techniques such as ablation and occlusion of the left atrial appendage, both of which are performed at Marin General Hospital.

Research has shown that lifestyle modifications that improve the condition of the heart can reduce episodes of atrial fibrillation, thus putting patients at lower risk for developing blood clots and strokes, and improving their quality of life. This is why I am excited to tell you about a comprehensive new atrial fibrillation program, unique to the Bay Area, called Get Into Rhythm which will soon be offered through Marin General Hospital’s Center for Integrative Health & Wellness (CIHW).

As part of their medical treatment plans, AFib patients will be referred to CIHW for a variety of integrative therapies including stress management, physical activity, and nutrition education, to complement and reinforce their physician’s medical treatment plan. With a focus on healing the whole person — mind, body and spirit — CIHW offers many opportunities for AFib patients, and others, to learn and practice healing treatments to improve health and manage triggers that can be associated with abnormal heart rhythms. For example, upon referral to CIHW, patients will receive a thorough nutrition assessment to help potentially limit salt, caffeine, and/or alcohol in their diets; get counseling on starting an exercise program that may include yoga, walking, and/or strength and balance classes; and learn stress management techniques including acupuncture, Jin Shin Jyutsu and guided meditation.

AFib is a serious condition, especially because it carries such a high risk for stroke. The good news is that it is treatable and in some cases reversible, especially when underlying conditions are treated. You can live a healthy and active life even with AFib. Work with your physician to develop the right treatment plan for you and maintain a regular checkup schedule.

If a diagnosis of AFib has been a wake-up call for you, it may also be an opportunity to make simple changes, such as healthy lifestyle choices, that will make a big difference in your overall health. When advanced technical expertise is combined with comprehensive plan for lifestyle modification, success rates and freedom from atrial fibrillation is markedly higher.