By Trudie Lobban MBE, FRCP (Founder & CEO, Arrhythmia Alliance & AF Association) and Michael Wong, JD (Founder & Executive Director, Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety)
Arrhythmia is when the heart rhythm is too slow, too fast, or beating in an irregular manner. The most common arrhythmia is Atrial Fibrillation (AF/AFib) symptoms may include – heart palpitations, fluttering in the chest, pounding heart, irregular heart rhythm or no symptoms at all. Some describe it like a bag of worms in their chest or banging of drums. If left undiagnosed and without anticoagulation therapy, it can lead to an AF-related stroke and even death.
Anticoagulation therapy helps to reduce blood clots forming in the chambers of the heart due to the irregular rhythm and traveling to the brain causing an AF-related stroke.
Treatments for AF exist to treat the symptoms from drugs to devices or ablation.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- 1 million people in the United States will have AFib in 2030.
- In 2019, AFib was mentioned on 183,321 death certificates and was the underlying cause of death in 26,535 of those deaths
Tragically, misconceptions or myths about AF may prevent people with AF from seeking medical care. Knowing these eight myths about AF can save your life or the life of a loved one and can certainly reduce the risk of an AF-related stroke.
Myth #1- Everyone suffers from palpitations, and fluttering in their chest – its normal and nothing to be concerned about
NO! One in four people will develop AF over the age of 64 years and this increases to 50% of people by the age of 80 years old. AF can lead to a devastating AF-related stroke. If you have AF, you have a five times greater chance of suffering an AF-related stroke. An AF-related stroke is more debilitating and disabling than any other type of stroke and is often fatal.
Myth #2 – I get breathless going upstairs and feel exhausted – but guess it is just old age
NO! AF can cause you to feel breathless. The heart has four chambers that beat in rhythm, however with AF, the chambers instead of being in rhythm, quiver and prevent a steady flow of blood to pass through the heart – causing a feeling of breathlessness and palpitations. So, that breathlessness you may be feeling could be AF. It is because the chambers are not in rhythm that blood clots can form, break away and travel to the brain triggering an AF-related stroke. Anticoagulation therapy helps reduce clots forming and therefore reduces the risk of an AF-related stroke.
Myth #3 – Only old people get Atrial Fibrillation.
Although AF is more common in people aged over 65 years of age, it can occur in younger people too! People in their 30’s 40’s and 50’s can develop AF however it is far less common. The sooner AF is detected, diagnosed, anticoagulated to prevent AF-related stroke and the AF treated the better the outcomes for the person with AF.
Myth #4 – if there is no treatment then it cannot be anything to worry about
There are several treatments from the ‘pill in your pocket’, regular medication, pacemakers, cardioversion, or ablation. AF can cause heart failure, anxiety, depression, and even dementia therefore it is important to receive appropriate treatment to reduce these risks. The quicker AF is diagnosed, the sooner you are treated the greater your chances of successful outcomes.
Myth #5 – the blood thinners the doctor gave me haven’t stopped the palpitations or breathlessness so they cannot be doing any good so I don’t bother taking them anymore
Anticoagulation medication does not thin the blood as everyone thinks. It helps to prevent blood clotting. It does not treat the symptoms of AF. However, it does help to prevent clots from forming in the chambers of the heart due to the quivering and irregular rhythm. It is important to prevent clots as they can travel to the brain causing an AF-related stroke (link to resource)
Myth #6 – I went to my doctor with palpitations and all he did was talk about stroke – he obviously did not understand it was my heart that I went to see him about not my brain
Once AF is detected and diagnosed your physician will want to reduce your risk of an AF-related stroke caused by a clot forming in your heart and traveling to your brain. Therefore often the first thing your doctor will discuss with you in anticoagulation therapy to reduce your risk of AF-related stroke. Your physician will then go on to discuss treatment options to address the symptoms of AF. (see AF Discussion Guide)
Conclusion – Get to ‘Know Your Pulse to Know Your Heart Rhythm – it could save your life’ wwwknowyourpulse.org
We all have several places on our body that have a pulse – most commonly the wrist but also your neck and groin. By getting to know your pulse you become aware of your heart rhythm– is it too fast, too slow or irregular. It is important that everyone is aware of their pulse and therefore the rhythm of their heart – it is the simplest way to detect AF. (Link to videos teaching about KYP manually and digital technology)
Arrhythmia Alliance and AF Association have collected and published medically approved resources for people wanting to learn more or who have been diagnosed with AF – to understand more click here There is also a library of educational videos in the Living with AF series.
Trudie Lobban is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Arrhythmia Alliance. Arrhythmia Alliance is a coalition of charities, patient groups, patients, carers, medical groups and allied professionals working together to improve the diagnosis, treatment and quality of life for all those affected by arrhythmias. She is also Founder & CEO of AF Association. www.heartrhythmalliance.org & http://www.afa-international.org
Michael Wong is Executive Director of the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety, a top-250 internationally ranked patient safety organization, which is a national advocacy force for addressing patient health and safety priorities that are shared by patients, physicians, regulators, and industry.