At First Flutter: Recognizing an Irregular Heart Rhythm

Next time you check your heart rate for optimal fat-burning potential during a workout, consider checking your rhythm as well. Atrial fibrillation, also referred to as AF or A Fib, is a common heart rhythm disorder that results in a flutter in the heartbeat caused by a problem in the upper chambers, or atria, of the heart.

“While atrial fibrillation is not common among young people, it can occur at any age,” says William Esper, D.O., an osteopathic cardiology physician practicing in Erie, Pa. “However, the likelihood of developing the condition increases with age.”

Those that suffer from atrial fibrillation have abnormal electrical signals going to their atria. This abnormality causes the heart to quiver or fibrillate, resulting in less oxygen-rich blood being pumped out. To date, more than 2 million people in the United States have this disorder, but each year approximately 160,000 new cases are diagnosed. According to Dr. Esper, almost 5 percent of people over age 65 and 9 percent of people 80 or older suffer from atrial fibrillation.

“This disorder increases the risk of stroke because it causes a pooling of blood in the atria, making a patient prone to blood clots moving from the heart to vessels in the brain,” explains Dr. Esper.

The causes of atrial fibrillation can include high blood pressure; coronary artery disease and prior heart attacks; heart valve disease; and other medical conditions like overactive thyroid or lung disease. Nonetheless, physicians occasionally diagnose patients without finding a definitive cause for the condition at all.

“Avoid excessive alcohol if you consider yourself at risk,” Dr. Esper warns. “Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can cause episodes of atrial fibrillation.”

The most extreme symptoms of this condition are acute chest pains or fainting. More common warning signs include weakness, shortness of breath and fluttering of the chest. However, since most people will not show any symptoms, Dr. Esper recommends that everyone, particularly individuals more than 65 years old, check their heartbeat or pulse once a month.

To take your pulse:
* Place the tips of your third and forth fingers on the palm side of your other wrist, below the base of the thumb or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe.
* Find the blood pulsing beneath your fingers and count the beats you feel for 15 seconds.
* Multiply this number by four to get your heart rate per minute. The usual resting heart rate for adults is
approximately 60 beats per minute.

A change in the heart's rhythm may feel like an extra-strong heartbeat or a fluttering in your chest. If you recognize an irregular rhythm, Dr. Esper recommends consulting your physician immediately. The physician will then use an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) and a physical exam of the heart to diagnose the disorder. If the patient has atrial fibrillation, there are many different methods of treatment. According to Dr. Esper, medication is the most common method to control the irregular heart rhythm.

“This condition can do serious damage to the heart and brain, potentially resulting in a heart attack, heart failure and stroke if it is not diagnosed early enough,” warns Dr. Esper. “The answer is early detection and treatment of atrial fibrillation.”

Preventive medicine is just one aspect of care osteopathic physicians (D.O.s) provide. Osteopathic physicians are fully-licensed to prescribe medicine and practice in all specialty areas including surgery. D.O.s are trained to consider the health of the whole person and use their hands to help diagnose and treat their patients.

February 1, 2007
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