Is Afib Dangerous?
March 8, 2023
If you’ve recently experienced your first atrial fibrillation or Afib episode, it may have been a scary experience, and you will likely be asking yourself if Afib is, in fact, dangerous. After all, if the attack was relatively strong, it’s hard to think anything less than “absolutely, it is dangerous!” However, the answer to this question is less straightforward than you think. Yes, the mechanics of Afib puts a significant strain on your heart, but your heart is also a very resilient muscle, and there are plenty of other factors that will affect how your body ultimately handles the condition now and in the future.
General Heart Health Considerations
First, the problems associated with Afib must always be looked at more generally through the prism of heart health. Are you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to excess weight or obesity, type two diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other metabolic and cardiovascular issues? Do you lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle? Are you experiencing significant stress that you cannot manage well? Do you have close relatives (especially parents) that experienced heart disease at a relatively early age? These underlying concerns increase the risk of Afib and the risks of follow-on problems associated with this irregular heartbeat.
Did you know? While the #1 risk factor for Afib is age, even high-performance athletes in peak form and children and adolescents can also experience Afib, so understanding a patient’s lifestyle and habits is critical. Still, sometimes, we don’t have an apparent underlying cause.
The risk of Afib also increases with the time it remains untreated. Untreated fib is often a result of patients living with, and adapting to the discomfort, especially if it is relatively mild to moderate. Further, despite seeking treatment from their primary care physician, or even their general cardiologist, some patients may be misdiagnosed if the physician doesn’t have access to the appropriate advanced diagnostic equipment – think Holter monitor, event monitor, and loop recorder. For example, while very useful during an active Afib episode, an EKG will otherwise not detect Afib.
The risks associated with untreated Afib are significant. They can lead to a five times higher risk of stroke and heart attack, and the constant fast or irregular heartbeat can also increase the risk for longer-term heart failure – where the heart enlarges and is less able to pump blood efficiently.
Does Afib Pose an Immediate Threat?
Ultimately, Afib in and of itself is rarely imminently dangerous unless you already have significant cardiovascular disease and the heart is weak. However, it can lead to future problems that can even be life-threatening – the aforementioned stroke, heart attack, and congestive heart failure risk. While many lifestyle habits ultimately contribute to the development or worsening of Afib, some issues cannot be avoided, not least of which is aging.
Important tip: While Afib and heart attack are caused by distinct mechanisms and have some differences, they often feel very similar at the moment. If you believe you could be experiencing a heart attack, do not delay in seeking emergency care at your nearest ER or by calling 911. Do not assume it is Afib unless you have a proper diagnosis and, under your electrophysiologist’s care, fully understand the symptoms associated with your arrhythmia compared to a heart attack. This is especially true for our female patients, who are likelier to have non-traditional heart attack symptoms.
As such, the first step in treating Afib is to seek out a qualified electrophysiologist like Dr. Tordini – a cardiologist with specialized training focusing on heart rhythm problems. It’s worth knowing that in most cases, Afib starts as occasional, also known as paroxysmal. These cases are often easily controlled with medication and, up to 70% of the time, can be cured with procedural solutions, such as cardiac catheter ablation. Anticoagulant medicine or procedural interventions like left atrial appendage occlusion can also be very effective if patients have a significant associated stroke risk.
Ultimately, visiting your heart rhythm specialist at the earliest signs of an irregularity is critical to ensure you receive the best and most effective care. We encourage you to schedule a consultation with Dr. Tordini and more and see how we can help you.