Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an irregular pulse that might be a sign that you have an abnormal heart rhythm, one of the most common forms of this and a major cause of stroke. It’s usually caused by heart valve disease, high blood pressure, excess alcohol consumption or thyrotoxicosis (an overactive thyroid gland). However, it is also associated with coronary heart disease.
Next month is AF Aware Week, running from November 21st to 27th, an event put on each year by Arrhythmia Alliance to help raise awareness of the condition. The focus this year is the importance of detecting potential problems just by doing a simple pulse check, helping to protect against strokes as a result of AF through the use of anticoagulation and correcting the rhythm of the heart.
Stats from the charity show that one in four people will go on to develop AF, with around 1.5 million people affected by the condition around the UK and more than 16 million around the world. Someone suffers from an AF-related stroke every 15 seconds and it’s the biggest single risk factor for having a debilitating or fatal stroke. And yet it can be detected just by carrying out simple manual pulse checks.
You can detect AF yourself by feeling the pulse in your wrist. If it feels irregular or the beats seem variable in strength, you may well have AF. If you are worried, make an appointment with your GP as soon as you can.
To check your own pulse properly, lay your hand out with the palm facing upwards. Using your first and middle finger of your other hand, put the pads of your fingers on the inside of your wrist at the base of the thumb where your watch strap would be. Press down lightly to feel your pulse, feeling it for 20-30 seconds.
Remember, however, that missed or extra beats are very common and not typically something to worry about, whereas AF is continuously irregular and has no pattern whatsoever.
There are several treatment options available if you are diagnosed with arrhythmia. There are different drugs available, for example, or you could have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator fitted that monitors your heart rhythm and corrects possible problems using various electrical impulses. There’s also a cardiac resynchronisation therapy device that works by retuning the timing of the heart to either reduce or eliminate symptoms, while also stopping further weakening of the heart itself.
And no doubt you’ve heard of pacemakers before. These are very small and operate using a battery, intended to treat abnormal heart rhythms to improve a patient’s quality of life. Batteries typically last between eight and 12 years, and you shouldn’t be aware of the pacemaker working once it’s been fitted. Note as well that these will be set so that your own heart will work as much as it can by itself. The pacemaker only kicks in if your heart rhythm slows down to a certain level.
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