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Out of sync: What you need to know about atrial fibrillation

Paoli Hospital April 25, 2017 Heart Health

When you think about heart problems, you might think of a heart attack. But another risk to be aware of is atrial fibrillation (AFib)—a common heart rhythm disorder that prevents the heart from pumping blood as effectively as it should.

“Women have a higher rate of atrial fibrillation than men largely because risk of the disorder increases with age. Since women typically live longer than men, more women are living with AFib,” explains Matthew Goldstein, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute electrophysiologist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “Unfortunately, women tend to underestimate their symptoms or delay telling their doctor. As a result, they may not be treated as early or aggressively.”

Is your heart keeping the beat?

Symptoms of AFib may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain. However, some symptoms, such as fatigue, may be vague. And some people don’t notice any symptoms at all.

“If you suspect a problem, check your pulse,” advises Colin Movsowitz, MD, electrophysiologist at Paoli Hospital. “If you detect an irregular rhythm or a rhythm over 120 beats a minute, tell your doctor.”

Atrial fibrillation can come and go, so you may not have an irregular heartbeat when you see your doctor. To help diagnose AFib, Main Line Health's Lankenau Heart Institute cardiac specialists offer heart monitoring. This includes a state-of-the-art implantable loop recorder, which is used to monitor and record infrequent, irregular rhythms over several months.

Why diagnosis matters

“Even if you’re not bothered by symptoms, knowing you have AFib is critical. That’s because it increases the risk of other serious health problems, such as stroke,” says Dr. Movsowitz.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent stroke in women with AFib. Your doctor may recommend taking aspirin or blood thinners. Lankenau Heart Institute also offers a new procedure using the WATCHMAN device, which closes off the heart’s left atrial appendage—a small sac-like area where strokes related to AFib typically form. This procedure may be appropriate for those at high risk for stroke who can’t tolerate blood thinning medication or are at high risk for bleeding.

In addition to stroke prevention, treatment for AFib may be right for some women. Treatment can include medications that help control heart rate or rhythm. For those for whom medication isn’t effective or who opt not to take medication, we offer ablation therapy as an option. The minimally invasive ablation procedure involves creating scar tissue in areas of the heart that trigger abnormal electrical signals, helping block these pulses.

Life after diagnosis

If you have AFib, working closely with both your cardiologist and your primary doctor is important. Graham Vigliotta, DO, primary care physician at Paoli Hospital, follows many patients with rhythm disorders and coordinates care with their cardiologists.

“If you have a heart issue, it’s important to take care of it,” he says. “But don’t lose sight of disease prevention and maintaining your overall health.”

Here for your heart

If you have symptoms of AFib or are already diagnosed, you may have questions or be looking for alternative treatment options. To schedule a consultation with a Lankenau Heart Institute heart rhythm specialist close to you, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654).