Screening For Atrial Fibrillation Stroke

Roughly 2.2 million Americans have a condition known as atrial fibrillation, the most common form of heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, according to the American Heart Association (2010). It is particularly prevalent in older adults, found in 3 to 5 percent of people over 65 (AHA, 2010). Atrial fibrillation is one of the leading causes of stroke and heart failure.

Medical screening can detect arterial fibrillation, even without symptoms, and help patients avoid stroke or heart failure.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

To pump blood, your upper and lower heart muscles need to contract and relax in a coordinated fashion. Arterial fibrillation makes these chambers get out of sync.

To “fibrillate” means to contract very quickly and irregularly. In cases of atrial fibrillation, the heart’s upper chambers (or “atria”) quiver instead of beating effectively. The lower chambers, or “ventricles,” pump more rapidly but can’t keep up. This causes blood to pool in the atria and the heartbeat to become rapid and irregular. The normal rate for ventricles is 60 to 100 beats a minute, but in people with atrial fibrillation, they may beat 100 to 175 times a minute.

Atrial fibrillation doesn’t always cause symptoms, which is why health screening is important. Those who do experience symptoms may notice:

  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Racing, uncomfortable heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms and you think they may be indicative of atrial fibrillation, discuss a medical screening test with your doctor.

The Atrial Fibrillation/Stroke Connection

When blood pools in the heart, clots can form. Clots can break apart and travel from your heart to your brain and block blood flow, which causes a stroke. The risk of having a stroke due to atrial fibrillation increases with age, how long you’ve had the condition and other risk factors. According to the American Heart Association (2010), atrial fibrillation is present in 15 percent of stroke cases.

Is Atrial Fibrillation Medical Screening Right for Me?

If you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms of heart arrhythmia, discuss health screening with your physician. In addition, if you have two or more of the following risk factors for arterial fibrillation, you may want to consider a medical screening test:

  • Congenital heart problems
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Thyroid problems.

How Does Atrial Fibrillation Health Screening Work?

An electrocardiogram (EKG) is the most common medical screening test for arterial fibrillation. This painless, non-invasive health screening test measures your heart rate and rhythm and checks the electrical signals passing through your heart.

Since atrial fibrillation can be occasional, as well as chronic, some patients wear a portable EKG unit to get an accurate health screening.

After a Medical Screening Test for Atrial Fibrillation

If a medical screening test reveals an arterial fibrillation, treatment options are available to control the disorder and prevent stroke and heart failure. Options include:

  • Increasing physical activity
  • Reducing consumption of caffeine, alcohol and salt
  • Taking medication to reduce clotting and regulate heartbeat.

In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.

Resources

American Heart Association. (2010). Atrial fibrillation. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4451

Life Line Screening. (n.d.). Screening for atrial fibrillation. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). Atrial fibrillation. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/atrial-fibrillation/DS00291

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. (2009). What is atrial fibrillation? Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/af/af_what.html