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Atrial fibrillation can be life-threatening: how to protect yourself
According to doctors, atrial fibrillation is one of the most common cardiac arrhythmias in Germany with almost two million people affected. The flickering often goes completely unnoticed, but can have life-threatening consequences. Health experts explain how to protect yourself.
Almost two million people affected in Germany
According to the German Heart Foundation, over 1.8 million people in Germany have atrial fibrillation. Thousands are added every year. According to the experts, the risk of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age. The frequency is therefore around five percent for those over 60 and around 15 percent for those over 80. In a message, the Heart Foundation informs about causes, symptoms and medical measures that protect against the dangers of atrial fibrillation such as heart failure and stroke.
Serious cardiac arrhythmia
"Atrial fibrillation is a serious cardiac arrhythmia that can go unnoticed and, if left untreated, can be life-threatening for the heart and brain, including heart failure and stroke," explains Prof. Dr. med. Dietrich Andresen, CEO of the German Heart Foundation.
"To prevent this, atrial fibrillation must be diagnosed early and treated consistently by the doctor," said the expert.
Various effective therapeutic approaches are available.
When to go to the doctor
“Many patients complain about a significant loss in quality of life. Especially if you only have atrial fibrillation for a few hours or days and therefore know how nice a regular heart rhythm is, ”explains Andresen.
With atrial fibrillation, the heart is usually completely out of rhythm. The first attack can occur with violent blows up to the throat, a feeling of pressure in the chest and an unusual shortness of breath during light activities such as climbing stairs.
Sufferers experience a sudden restlessness when the heart beats completely irregularly and quickly with a pulse of up to 160 beats per minute, in rare cases also faster.
However, the chaotic heartbeat sequence can also be accompanied by a normal heart rate (60-100 beats per minute are normal).
"Stumbling and rapid heartbeat are often associated with inner restlessness, fear, a tendency to sweat, shortness of breath and poor performance," explains the cardiologist.
“However, shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness are particularly common in cardiac patients whose bruised heart cannot tolerate the rhythm disturbance. If you have these symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately! "
With an EKG, long-term ECG or event recorder, the doctor can clarify whether the stumbling of the heart is a harmless irregular heartbeat or whether there is atrial fibrillation that can lead to a stroke.
Atrial fibrillation can cause fatal stroke
“Stroke is the greatest risk from atrial fibrillation. Elderly and cardiac patients have a particularly high risk, ”said Andresen.
"In order to protect them from stroke, anticoagulant drugs - 'blood thinners' - must be given consistently."
However, it is tricky that atrial fibrillation occurs in over half of all patients without symptoms or symptoms and therefore remains unnoticed for a long time and is therefore rarely detected in a timely manner.
Often patients with heart failure or stroke are admitted to hospital and learn for the first time that atrial fibrillation is responsible.
This is particularly true for older patients, in whom atrial fibrillation is often only found by chance.
"Strokes caused by atrial fibrillation have a particularly severe course," warns Andresen.
For this reason, every opportunity should be used to determine the irregular heartbeat: Repeatedly pressing your own pulse, paying attention to the display on the blood pressure monitor, maybe even loading an app on your cell phone to help determine pulse irregularities.
"But the app should not be seen as the sole diagnostic tool, only the doctor can make a reliable diagnosis."
The German Heart Foundation advises: Especially cardiac patients and people over 60 should have their heartbeat checked by a pulse measurement during routine checks at the doctor's.
Treat causes of atrial fibrillation
When the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is established, the cardiologist and patient discuss the treatment options.
"It often makes sense not to treat atrial fibrillation for rare seizures that only occur one to three times a month and only last a few seconds, but only the underlying disease that caused the arrhythmia," says Prof. Andreas Götte vom Scientific advisory board of the German Heart Foundation.
The cardiologist's job is to use examinations to uncover the underlying disease of the rhythm disorder and treat it consistently.
Most common: hypertension is present in approximately 70 percent of all patients with atrial fibrillation.
Other causes can include coronary heart disease (CHD), heart failure (heart failure), valve disease, obesity, diabetes, thyroid disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and sleep disorders (sleep apnea syndrome).
"These basic diseases are to be treated consistently with medication and a healthy lifestyle: with endurance training every 20-30 minutes 3 to 5 times a week, losing weight if you are overweight, healthy eating and quitting smoking."
Heavy smoking, chronic alcohol abuse and a hereditary tendency are also associated with atrial fibrillation. Especially in the case of cardiac patients, but also in healthy people, there are triggers that can trigger atrial fibrillation: alcohol, sleep deprivation, extreme stress, smoking, heavy caffeine consumption and opulent meals.
And also disturbances of the salt balance (electrolytes) with a deficiency of potassium and magnesium can favor atrial fibrillation. "Then potassium and magnesium have to be added."
If, despite treatment with rhythm medication (antiarrhythmics), patients continue to experience significant complaints such as shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, poor performance, catheter ablation makes sense, according to the Heart Foundation.
With the standard procedure, experienced doctors can eliminate atrial fibrillation in about 70 percent of patients. With persistent atrial fibrillation, the success rate is around 50 percent.
However, some patients may need to be treated again after the first procedure.
“The patients gain a lot of quality of life. However, only designated specialist clinics should carry out the treatment for this, ”says Prof. Gerhard Hindricks from the Scientific Advisory Board of the Heart Foundation.
“Catheter ablation is considered a safe procedure in experienced centers: around 95% of patients experience no significant complications. But the intervention is not without risks, ”said Hindricks.
Possible complications include vascular injury, bleeding into the pericardium, and stroke.
Atrial fibrillation can weaken the heart
Long-lasting atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure, which severely limits performance and reduces the quality of life for those affected.
In addition to treatment with electroshock (cardioversion) and rhythm medication (arrhythmics), the latest studies see catheter ablation as a promising procedure that can have a positive impact on life expectancy and, at the same time, can alleviate the symptoms if the heart is weak.
But the surgical intervention for the treatment of atrial fibrillation can also be a promising therapeutic approach here. (ad)