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AFib and stroke: What's the link?

Bryn Mawr Hospital November 10, 2016 General Wellness

There are several risk factors that can influence stroke risk, including age, gender, race, chronic disease, and diet. But perhaps one of the most significant risk factors is atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

AFib, a common form of cardiac arrhythmia, affects millions of Americans. Marked by an irregular or rapid heartbeat, AFib causes blood to collect in the heart and form a blood clot, which can travel to the brain and lead to stroke.

“Despite its prevalence, the symptoms of AFib can be difficult to notice. Its most common symptoms are heart palpitations, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue. However, there are many individuals living with AFib who experience none of these symptoms,” says Glenn Harper, MD, cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health.

Although its symptoms can sometimes be silent, AFib is nothing to ignore. Per the National Stroke Association, atrial fibrillation raises an individual’s stroke risk by 500 percent.

“Not only does AFib significantly increase stroke risk, it also increases the likelihood that a stroke can be fatal or disabling,” explains Michelle Smith, MD, vascular neurosurgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health Neurosurgery, a member of Jefferson Neuroscience Network.

These statistics can be frightening, especially to anyone living with AFib or who has a family history of arrhythmia issues. But there’s good news, too.

“Nearly 75 percent of AFib-related strokes are preventable,” says Dr. Smith. “AFib doesn’t have to mean stroke. If you’re diagnosed with AFib, the most important thing you can do is to work with a cardiologist to manage your heart health.”

Controlling AFib

If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, your cardiologist will underscore the importance of a healthy lifestyle and its role in keeping your heart healthy. That means exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, quitting smoking and tobacco use, and trying to reduce any unnecessary stress, as it can take a toll on your heart.

But, often, these lifestyle habits will need to be supplemented by medications, as well.

“There are several different types of medications available to patients with AFib, and the goal of these medications is to prevent clotting and assist with resetting a normal heart rhythm,” says Dr. Harper.

In more severe cases of AFib, your cardiologist may also recommend cardiac procedures that can control heart rate and rhythm. Your treatment plan will depend on several factors, including the severity of your symptoms, and how long you have had AFib.