American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

Recognizing an Irregular Heart Rhythm

Woman taking her pulseNext time you check your heart rate for optimal fat-burning potential during a workout, consider checking your rhythm as well. Atrial fibrillation, also referred to as AF or A Fib, is a common heart rhythm disorder that results in a flutter in the heartbeat caused by a problem in the upper chambers, or atria, of the heart.

"While atrial fibrillation is not common among young people, it can occur at any age,” says Jeffry A. Lindenbaum, DO, an osteopathic family physician practicing in Yardley, Pa. “However, the likelihood of developing the condition increases with age."

Those that suffer from atrial fibrillation have abnormal electrical signals going to their atria. This abnormality causes the atria to fibrillate or quiver, resulting in less oxygen-rich blood being pumped out. According to Dr. Lindenbaum, almost 5% of people over age 65 and 9% of people 80 or older suffer from atrial fibrillation.

"This disorder increases the risk of stroke because it causes a pooling of blood in the atria, making a patient prone to blood clots moving from the heart to vessels in the brain," explains Dr. Lindenbaum.

Causes and Symptoms

The causes of atrial fibrillation can include high blood pressure; coronary artery disease and prior heart attacks; heart valve disease; and other medical conditions like overactive thyroid or lung disease. Nonetheless, physicians occasionally diagnose patients without finding a definitive cause for the condition at all.

"Avoid excessive alcohol if you consider yourself at risk," Dr. Lindenbaum warns. "Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can cause episodes of atrial fibrillation."

The most extreme symptoms of this condition are acute chest pains or fainting. More common warning signs include weakness, shortness of breath and fluttering of the chest. However, since most people will not show any symptoms, Dr. Lindenbaum recommends that everyone, particularly individuals more than 65 years old, check their heartbeat or pulse once a month.

Early Detection: Check Your Pulse

To take your pulse:

  • Place the tips of your third and forth fingers on the palm side of your other wrist, below the base of the thumb or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe.

  • Find the blood pulsing beneath your fingers and count the beats you feel for 15 seconds.

  • Multiply this number by four to get your heart rate per minute. The usual resting heart rate for adults is approximately 60 beats per minute.

A change in the heart's rhythm may feel like an extra-strong heartbeat or a fluttering in your chest. If you recognize an irregular rhythm, Dr. Lindenbaum recommends consulting your physician immediately. The physician will then use an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) and a physical exam of the heart to diagnose the disorder. If the patient has atrial fibrillation, there are many different methods of treatment. According to Dr. Lindenbaum, medication is the most common method to control the irregular heart rhythm.

"This condition can do serious damage to the heart and brain, potentially resulting in a heart attack, heart failure and stroke if it is not diagnosed early enough," warns Dr. Lindenbaum. "The answer is early detection and treatment of atrial fibrillation."

 

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