When simple tasks like unloading clothes from the washing machine left Atlanta resident Helen Smith, 66, tired and short of breath, she wondered if her increasing fatigue was due to aging. Jerry Rutherford, of Albany, was 62 when he was rushed to the hospital emergency room nearly two years ago. Feeling light headed and dizzy, he was convinced he was experiencing a heart attack.
However, medical exams showed that both Smith and Rutherford had the same diagnosis -- atrial fibrillation (A-fib).
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), about two million Americans suffer from A-fib, which results when multiple circuits of disorganized electrical activity in the top chambers of the heart (the atria) replace the organized electrical activity that is normally generated by the heart's sinus node. This produces a quivering of the atria instead of regular heartbeats.
Although not directly life threatening, the sometimes debilitating condition produces a fast, irregular and ineffective heart rhythm and can cause fatigue and contribute to additional heart problems over time, including heart failure. Most seriously, A-fib raises the risk of stroke and patients are often placed on blood thinners and other heart medications.
"Atrial fibrillation is by far the most common sustained arrhythmia we see and creates a tremendous amount of symptoms and disability in patients," says Emory Heart Center electrophysiologist Angel Leon, MD, Director of Cardiology at Emory Crawford Long Hospital.
Only a few years ago, most people suffering from this common heart arrhythmia were told they would probably have to live with the problem. Today, however, an increasing number of people with A-fib can now be cured, thanks to innovative therapies and procedures available at the Emory Heart Center's Atrial Fibrillation Program (with sites at Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital). It is the only comprehensive A-fib treatment program of its kind in Georgia.
"By now being able to treat atrial fibrillation and potentially cure it, we can not only improve the quality of life for many patients but we can reduce the number of medications they have to take and trips to the hospital," says Dr. Leon.
Emory Heart Center electrophysiologist John Beshai, MD, points out that identifying potential causes of A-fib is important. "Although we can't always find a specific trigger, hyperthyroidism, excessive alcohol and certain medications can result in atrial fibrillation in some people. In figuring out the best approach to treat each case, there are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration in the hands of experienced people trained in the variety of effective A-fib treatments," says Dr. Beshai, who has performed nearly 200 ablations. Dr. Beshai was recruited to Emory for his experience with developing advanced catheter-based techniques.
The Emory Heart Center Atrial Fibrillation Program involves medication when needed, as well as the minimally invasive procedure known as radiofrequency ablation for selected patients. To perform an ablation, an electrophysiology study is first performed which maps the source of a patient's heart arrhythmia. Then thin, flexible tubes are introduced through a blood vessel and directed to the heart muscle where a burst of radiofrequency energy is delivered to destroy tissue that has been found to trigger abnormal electrical signals or to block abnormal electrical pathways causing irregular heart rhythms.
For more information on the Emory Heart Center Atrial Fibrillation Program at Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital, call Emory Health Connection at 404-778-7777.