Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a major risk factor for stroke, making a person five times more likely to have a stroke. About 15 percent of all people who have strokes have AF, too. People who have been diagnosed with AF have already taken the first step to preventing AF-related stroke. Unfortunately, many Americans who have AF don’t know it. Three out of four AF-related stroke can be prevented — if you are already diagnosed, Beat Your Odds of having a stroke due to AF by understanding stroke symptoms, response and available treatments to control AF. Most Americans over the age of 40 are at risk for having AF. Take preventive steps by self-testing for an irregular heartbeat with the Check Your Pulse technique and discuss your risk for AF and stroke with your doctor.
Common AF symptoms:
- Heart palpitations
- A sudden pounding, fluttering or racing sensation in the chest, sometimes referred to as "butterflies"
- Dizziness or feeling light-headed
What is AF and how does it relate to stroke?
AF is a type of irregular heartbeat. It is caused when the two upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat rapidly and unpredictably, producing an irregular heartbeat. AF raises stroke risk because it allows blood to pool in the heart. When blood pools, it tends to form clots which can then be carried to the brain, causing a stroke. Long-term untreated AF can also weaken the heart, leading to heart failure. More than 70 percent of AF patients who have strokes will die. While an estimated 2.2 million people are diagnosed with AF, it is estimated that one-third of Americans who have it are still undiagnosed. Treatments are available for AF if it is diagnosed properly.
Who is most likely to have AF?
While it can occur at any age, AF is more common as people grow older. About 5 percent of people 65 years old have AF. One in every 20 people over the age of 70 has AF and it’s more common in those with high blood pressure, heart disease or lung disease.
What are the symptoms?
Often, AF has no visible symptoms. Some people with AF describe fluttering, racing or pounding sensations in their chests. Others may only experience dizziness, fainting or light headedness during an episode. Anyone with these symptoms should visit a doctor to be evaluated for AF.
Beat Your Odds: Treatments for AF to prevent stroke
The goal for treating AF is to restore the normal, regular rhythm of the heart and beat the odds of having a stroke. Often, this can be done with medications or the use of electrical stimulation. If these efforts are not successful, AF treatment concentrates on protecting from the blood clots that could travel from the heart to the brain, causing strokes. To reduce the risk of stroke, doctors can prescribe blood thinning medications, which can greatly reduce stroke risk if taken properly. While most AF-related strokes could be prevented with blood thinners, up to two-thirds of AF patients who had strokes are not prescribed these medications. Anticoagulants are drugs that can help prevent blood clots. They can reduce the risk of first stroke in AF patients by 68 percent. There are several reasons why current drugs are not being prescribed, including interactions with diet and other drugs, the necessity for frequent blood tests and monitoring and concerns about increased risk of bleeding. But, there are new drugs on the horizon that may have fewer of these complications.
Check Your Pulse: Helps Identify AF
National Stroke Association suggests our simple Check Your Pulse℠ test once every month to check for an irregular rhythm - a sign of possible AF. Ask a doctor to check as well. Remember, you are checking for heart rhythm, not rate. In other words you are checking how the heart is beating and not the number of beats in a one-minute period.
Check Your Pulse Test
Step 1. Turn your left hand so your palm is facing up. Place the first two fingers of your right hand on the outer edge of your left wrist, just below where you wrist and thumb meet.
Step 2. Slide your fingers toward the center of your wrist until you find your pulse.
Step 3. Press your fingers down onto your wrist until you feel your pulse, being careful not to press too hard. Move your fingers around until the pulse is easy to feel.
Step 4. Feel your pulse for one minute, or 60 seconds. Don’t count the beats. Just pay attention to whether the rhythm seems regular or irregular. A regular pulse will feel even and consistent. An irregular pulse will feel erratic and unpredictable.
The Check Your Pulse self-screening test must be performed properly in order to obtain correct results and should not be considered a substitute for consulting with a physician. If you suspect you may have an irregular pulse, you have difficulty locating your pulse or performing the screening technique, discuss your concerns with your physician.
A thorough heart check-up at the doctor includes testing for blocked blood vessels and irregular heart rhythms, including AF. Because AF, like high blood pressure, cholesterol and some other heart diseases, often has no outward symptoms, the only way to confirm the presence of AF is to perform an electrocardiogram (ECG).
During an ECG, sensitive electrodes are placed on the chest. These electrodes pick up the electrical impulses generated by the body that cause the heart to beat. The impulses are sent to a T.V. screen or a piece of paper called an ECG strip. By examining the specific pattern of electrical impulses, a doctor can determine whether a patient has AF. Doctors may choose to treat this form of heart disease by prescribing medication or by an electrical shock to the chest to return the beating back to normal.
National Stroke Association
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