Maybe it’s a quick flutter in your chest. Or maybe your heart feels like it’s doing flip-flops. When you feel like your heart is beating irregularly, you might have an abnormal heart rhythm, or an arrhythmia.
Some arrhythmias are benign, meaning they are completely harmless. Others can signal a serious heart condition. One such arrhythmia is called atrial fibrillation, or A-Fib.
Four questions to ask about valve disease
One of the most common causes of A-Fib is heart valve problems. If you discover that you have valve disease, here are four questions you need to ask.
Are there different types of valve disease?
A: Yes. Your heart has four valves—tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, and aortic. Each valve has flaps that open and close to keep your blood flowing through your heart, lungs, and body.
All valves can have problems called stenosis and regurgitation.
- Stenosis occurs when a valve’s flaps stiffen, thicken, or fuse together. The valve cannot fully open.
- Regurgitation occurs when a valve is able to open, but cannot fully close, causing blood to leak backward rather than flowing on through the heart or into an artery.
What does A-Fib have to do with valve disease?
A: A-Fib can be caused by a number of factors, and valve disease is among the most common. Two of the main types of valve disease are called regurgitation and stenosis.
During regurgitation, your heart has to work harder than usual. This can put a major strain on your heart. To keep up, your heart can become enlarged—one of the main risk factors for developing A-Fib.
Heart valve stenosis is also linked to a higher risk for atrial fibrillation. For example, mitral valve stenosis results in an obstruction to blood flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle causing the pressure to increase in the left atrium. As a result, the heart enlarges, and atrial fibrillation can occur.
Is there treatment for A-Fib?
A: Absolutely, and there are several different types.
- Medication can get your heart rate and/or rhythm under control. Your physician might also want you to start medications that can prevent blood clots. A-Fib increases your risk of developing clots, and clots can cause a stroke.
- Non-surgical procedures can also be used to reset your heart rhythm. For example, with electrical cardioversion, you are sedated and receive a mild electric shock to your chest through electric paddles. This can “reset” the heart’s rhythm.
- Surgical procedures, such as implanting a pacemaker, can help your heart maintain a normal heart rate. Alternatively, there’s catheter and surgical ablation (Maze procedure) which create very tiny scars in the heart tissue of the atrium.
This scarring interferes with the abnormal electrical impulses that cause A-Fib. The left atrial appendage (LAA) is a pouch that is connected to the left atrium of the heart. It is a major source of blood clots in A-Fib. The left atrial appendage can be ligated (sealed off) or removed during open heart surgery to reduce the risk of clots. It can also be closed with catheter-based procedures.
If you don’t need treatment right away, your physician might recommend making simple lifestyle changes, including reducing stress and cutting back on your sodium intake.
Is there anything I can do to prevent A-Fib?
A: Living a healthy lifestyle is your best bet for preventing both A-Fib and valve disease. That means staying physically active, keeping a healthy weight, not smoking, and eating a heart-healthy diet. Obesity and diabetes are both associated with an increased risk of developing A-Fib.
Avoiding large amounts of alcohol can also prevent A-Fib. Drinking too much alcohol at once can increase your risk of A-Fib—a problem that many physicians have dubbed “holiday heart syndrome,” since people tend to drink more on holidays. Long-term excessive drinking is also associated with arrhythmias.
The bottom line: Take care of yourself. A healthy life can keep you free of A-Fib and other cardiac problems. That’s something your heart will thank you for.
If you have heart valve problems that are causing an abnormal heart rhythm like A-Fib, there’s one more very important question to ask: What’s the next step? Reach out to the Penn Heart Valve Disease Program to find the treatment that’s best for you.