Sweet indulgences are Valentine’s Day traditions. For some of us, they may also trigger episodes of “holiday heart,” or rapid, irregular heart beats. Medically, the condition is called atrial fibrillation, or Afib.
“Too much caffeine or alcohol or food can sometimes cause your heart to race in an erratic way,” says J. Michael Mangrum, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of the Atrial Fibrillation Center at the University of Virginia Health System.
Afib originates in the two upper chambers of the heart (atria). It starts when the electrical impulses that keep our hearts beating in a regular, rhythmic manner suddenly short circuit. The atria begin to quiver and beat irregularly, usually too fast with too little pumping force. When Afib occurs, most people experience heart palpitations, dizziness, faintness, chest discomfort and fatigue.
Afib is the most common heart rhythm disorder and affects more than 2.2 million Americans, most of whom are elderly, suffer from hypertension or have other heart problems. More than 350,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and it’s estimated that by the year 2030 about 5.6 million people in the U.S. will have it.
People without underlying heart disease can experience Afib. Besides overindulging, the condition can be triggered by stress, infections, medications and metabolic and electrolyte imbalances.
“No matter what brings it on, Afib is a condition that should not be ignored,” Dr. Mangrum explains. “When the atria beat too fast, they don’t function normally. This causes the lower chambers to beat erratically and lose up to 15 percent of their pumping volume. Additionally, in Afib the blood moves more slowly through the atria, and is more likely to clot. A clot pumped out of the heart can cause a stroke.” People with Afib are five to seven times more likely to suffer a stroke than the general population.
As director of a center that saw over 1,800 patients and performed over 380 procedures last year, Dr. Mangrum is recognized as a leading expert in Afib treatment and research. His work is focused on performing cardiac ablation, a specialized non-surgical procedure that treats Afib by eliminating abnormal electrical signals within the atria. He and his colleagues are currently leading UVA’s participation in three clinical trials that represent cutting edge advancements in Afib treatment.
The first trial involves a new system that uses direct visualization from within the heart and laser energy to perform cardiac ablation. The second uses ultrasound energy to eliminate the abnormal electrical signals. The third is checking the effectiveness of an implantable device that keeps blood clots from moving out of the left atrium into an Afib patient’s blood stream.
“There are exciting, new developments in treating Afib today,” Dr. Mangrum observes. “Many Afib patients are able to maintain normal heart rhythm through use of medications, or through procedures such as cardioversion (an electrical shock), or through ablation procedures. Our goal is to make sure that even patients with the most persistent and chronic symptoms have effective treatment options.”
Dr. Mangrum encourages people to enjoy their sweet, Valentine’s Day indulgences in moderation. However, if you get carried away and experience a racing heart, go see your doctor. “Holiday heart” should not be taken lightly.
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