Norman Regional Health System

Kit and his wife

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Our hearts beat every moment of our lives. The heartbeat is a constant reminder that we are alive and well and for the most part, it’s something that we pay no mind to, which makes it all the more unsettling if we do notice something is out of the ordinary. For 2.7 million Americans, when they realized something was unusual about their heartbeat, it turned out to be Atrial Fibrillation, also known as AFib.

Sunil T. Mathew, MD, Norman Regional cardiologist sees patients who are living with AFib constantly and has a deep insight into all things related to the condition. For AFib awareness month, Dr. Mathew is sharing some details into why AFib awareness is important, what the condition entails, who is most at risk to develop it and much more.

What is Atrial Fibrillation

“Atrial Fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder that can occur in any of us if our heart is stressed enough and it’s more often than not very brief,” Dr. Mathew said. “It tends to affect the older population more, but if you are younger and put enough stress on your plate you can get AFib, but you typically bounce back, as you get older you won’t bounce back like you did when you were younger, it will linger on. The good news is that it isn’t life threatening.”

Although AFib is not a life-threatening condition, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take it seriously. The cause for concern with AFib primarily lies in its potential to lead to more severe conditions.

“The real worry with AFib is that the upper chambers of the heart are not beating in sync any more with the bottom chambers. Normally, the upper chambers pump blood into the heart and the lower chambers pump the blood out,” Dr. Mathew said. “With AFib, the upper chambers will quiver and there is no effective blood movement from the top to the bottom of the heart, which can lead to a blood clot. If the blood clot leaves the heart and move to the brain, that is a set up for a stroke. So that’s the real danger with AFib.”

Treatments and compounding risk factors

Usually patients experiencing AFib are put on blood thinners to reduce the risk of a stroke occurring from blood clots. Unfortunately, there are no treatments options for AFib that completely eliminate the complications that can come from it. This makes it all the more important to ensure that people experiencing an irregular heartbeat schedule an appointment with their primary care provider to determine if they are dealing with AFib. There are also other factors that can make AFib more problematic for some patients.

“There are four big factors that can elevate stroke risk with AFib, which are age, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and sleep apnea,” Dr. Mathew said. “When people are sleeping if the tongue relaxes and blocks the airways, your oxygen levels plummet and carbon dioxide levels increase, but you are unconscious, so your body responds by sending a surge of adrenaline to try and wake you up. This can happen hundreds of times a night for people with sleep apnea and each time that adrenaline rush comes, the heart is put under a lot of stress. For people who have AFib, this increases the potential for stroke.”

Ultimately, because AFib is such a multi-faceted condition with many compounding risk factors it can be a lot to process. The most important thing we can do to manage the risks associated with AFib is to routinely visit a primary care provider. Many people don’t even realize they are living with AFib, but by being proactive with our health, we can reduce risks and catch these conditions before they lead to something worse later on.

If you do not have a primary care provider, you can find a list of Norman Regional providers here.