A Personal Story About Atrial Fibrillation Detection

February 08, 2019

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his American Heart Month, many communities will come together to learn about heart disease. But there may still be a lack of awareness about a serious heart condition that, in some cases, can have no signs or symptoms at all – atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib Detection

AFib can lead to blood clots and even stroke, among other complications.  For patients, particularly aged 65 and older with conditions including (but not limited to) diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, or other heart conditions, it’s important to understand the potential signs of AFib and to talk with their doctor about any concerning symptoms.

Dr. David McManus is a cardiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center. He recalls when his father, Floyd, underwent cataract surgery – a common operation for older patients. His anesthesiologist had his eye trained on his vitals and noticed an irregular heart rhythm. This helped to play a key role in identifying a serious condition for Floyd – AFib.

Typically, an anesthesiologist’s intervention isn’t and shouldn’t be necessary to find AFib. Ideally, it would be detected during a routine primary-care checkup. Floyd's case points to one of the complexities of AFib. Both AFib and its symptoms can be intermittent, which can make identifying it during a routine exam difficult. Some symptoms of AFib include heart palpitations, pain and pressure in the chest, fatigue, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, and rapid or pounding pulse.

Matter of Moments

“There really is no one symptom of AFib,” says Dr. McManus. “I’ve heard some people describe a fluttering sensation or a rapid pulse. I’ve heard others say it feels like a fish flip-flopping out of water in their chest, or like a hummingbird flopping around inside trying to get out. That’s what a doctor would call a palpitation. But some patients that have AFib don’t feel any of these things.”

Awareness that something doesn’t feel right, combined with a doctor’s assessment—which will likely involve an electrocardiogram–and the potential for home monitoring, can be important in the diagnosis of AFib.

“My father’s case is a great example of how more awareness needs to be raised around the identification of AFib in appropriate patients,” Dr. McManus notes.

Learn more about AFib in this article on TheAtlantic.com.

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