(The Story of Your Heart’s Spark Plug)

As we age, our bodies will change. That includes our organs such as the heart, which is at the center of our being. As with electrical circuits in an older home, the electrical system of the heart is particularly prone to developing problems over time. One such problem is called Atrial Fibrillation (Atrial Fib).

Older adults are much more likely to develop Atrial Fib. According to the National Institute of Health, seventy percent of patients with Atrial Fib are between 65 and 85 years old, and should be alert for the signs and symptoms, since Atrial Fib can lead to blood clotting and possible stroke. According to the American Heart Association, 2.7 million Americans are living with Atrial Fib. Untreated Atrial Fib doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and has 5 times the risk of stroke. Women have a 20% greater risk of developing Atrial Fib. Atrial Fib is more prevalent in white Americans, but African Americans have more serious reactions to it, like stroke, heart attacks and hospitalizations.

What is Atrial Fib?

Atrial fib is a condition that affects the way your heart beats. In a healthy heart, the heartbeat is triggered by an electrical impulse coming from the Sinus Node, which is in the upper chamber of the heart. The Sinus Node is like your heart’s spark plug.

The heart is divided into two smaller upper chambers called Atria. There are also two larger, lower chambers called Ventricles. The Atria squeeze blood down into the Ventricles, then the blood gets pumped out to the lungs, brain, and body.

The Sinus Node: Your Spark Plug

 In Atrial Fib, the Sinus Node “your spark plug” is taken over by abnormal electrical impulses in the Atria. Those impulses are regulated by the Atrioventricular Node (AV Node) that lies between the Atria and the Ventricles. When you are in Atrial Fib, the AV Node only allows some of those impulses to make it to the Ventricles, resulting in an often fast, irregular pulse.

Normally, your heart beats slowly and steadily like a clock, but when you have Atrial Fib, your heart beats unevenly and you may experience palpitations and skipped beats—that spark plug is misfiring. You may feel tired and out of sorts and have dizziness or shortness of breath.  You also may be experiencing chest pain, chest pressure, anxiety, faintness, or confusion, sweating or fluttering in the chest. The American Heart Association suggests that if you do have any of these symptoms, you should call 911 immediately, since it could be a sign of a heart attack, stroke, or another medical emergency.

Do You Have Symptoms?

If you have symptoms of Atrial Fib, the doctor can determine if you have Atrial Fib and if so, treat you with medications like Metoprolol, blood thinners like Coumadin and possibly mild electrical shocks that can allow your Sinus Node to take over and get your heart back to its regular, even beat. Sometimes, you may need a pacemaker.

 Atrial Fib can cause blood clots to form in the Atrium which can then travel through the Ventricles and may lodge in your brain causing a stroke. It is good for you and your family to be aware of stroke symptoms:

Stroke Warning Signs (American Heart Association)

Think F.A.S.T. when suspecting stroke:

  1. Face drooping:  One side of the face droops.
  • Arm weakness:  Ask the person to raise their arms. They may not be able to lift both arms and if they can, then one arm may drift down.
  • Slurred speech:  The speech may sound garbled or slurred. Ask them to repeat a sentence like, “Mary had a little lamb”.
  • Time to call 911:  If the person shows any of these signs of a stroke, call 911 immediately.

Be aware of the risk factors for Atrial Fib (National Institute of Health)

  • Age
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Thyroid disease
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Obesity
  • Family history
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Smoking

We can’t control our age and family history, but we can work to change our blood pressure with medicines, diet, and exercise. Thyroid disease is generally treated with medicine, while Sleep Apnea can be treated with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Alcohol use, smoking and obesity are more complex problems and often require multiple therapies.

It is important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may be having and any questions that come up. He or she can guide you through the process and discuss with you the treatments and preventive measures available for Atrial Fibrillation.

Colorado Attracts Great Heart Specialists

Colorado is blessed with several clinics and hospitals with great heart physicians—cardiologists–and highly trained support staff.  A few examples: Cardiologists & Heart Doctors in Denver, CO | Denver Heart, UCHealth Cardiac Surgery – Memorial Hospital Central | Colorado Springs, UCHealth Heart and Vascular Center | Loveland Cardiology

There is quite a bit of additional information available about Atrial Fibrillation. The American Heart Association, The National Institutes of Health NIH, WebMD, the CDC, and the Mayo Clinic are just a few of the sources to check out.

Heart image by Matthew Burleson at Pixabay.com

By Terry A. Schneider RN BSN (October 2022)