Butterflies in a patient's stomach are one thing, but palpitations in their chest can mean serious heart problems.
"Having atrial fibrillation (AFib) can increase your risk for stroke and heart failure. It's vital to know your risk and get help before it strikes," said cardiologist Dr. Mark Link, Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of Cardiac Electrophysiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
September is AFib awareness month, and UT Southwestern cardiologists can help patients determine when to seek treatment. According to the American Heart Association, AFib is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.
Many people get occasional palpitations that may raise concerns about a possible heart rhythm disorder. Such palpitations may be caused by too much caffeine (including caffeine found in chocolate), alcohol, nicotine, stress, exercise, dehydration, or an abnormal heart rhythm. Even when palpitations are caused by a heart rhythm disorder, most aren't dangerous.
There are exceptions, however. "If a patient has palpitations accompanied by chest pain, lightheadedness or dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, or fainting, he or she should seek immediate medical attention," said Dr. Link, who also holds the Laurence and Susan Hirsch/Centex Distinguished Chair in Heart Disease at UT Southwestern.
Symptoms of AFib
- A feeling that the heart is skipping a beat
- A heartbeat that is too fast or "racing"
- A heartbeat that is too slow
- An irregular heartbeat
- Pauses between heartbeats
According to Dr. Link, tests that may be performed to diagnose arrhythmia include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): Measures heart rate, heart rhythm, and strength of electrical signals in the heart
- Event monitoring: Records and transmits heart patterns using a small, pager-size device that records ECG patterns when activated by the patient
- Holter monitor: An external device worn by the patient that records a continuous ECG of the heart's electrical activity
- Echocardiogram: Produces a moving picture of the heart, using a device called a transducer that is placed on the chest
- Electrophysiology study: Insertion of a specially outfitted catheter into the heart to measure electrical signals, pinpoint injured and abnormal heart muscle, and administer electric impulses to evaluate arrhythmias
- Cardiac stress testing: Evaluates how the heart performs during exertion, such as walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike
"All of these tests are important measures of cardiac health," Dr. Link said. "It's important to work with your physician to determine the right test for you."