Heart Rhythm Awareness Week

‘World Heart Rhythm Awareness Week’ takes place from June 1st – 7th and we are marking this international campaign by highlighting Atrial Fibrillation which is one of the most common irregular heart rhythms and is a major risk factor for stroke.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial Fibrillation is the name for a type of irregular heart rhythm and is a major risk factor for stroke. In fact, you are five times more likely to have a stroke if you have Atrial Fibrillation. Atrial Fibrillation is more common in people over 60 years. A simple pulse check taken at your wrist can be the first step in detecting Atrial Fibrillation.

The term ‘Atrial Fibrillation’ describes the fast, irregular beating of the upper chambers of the heart (the atria). Atrial Fibrillation overrides the heart’s natural pacemaker and does not allow the heart to beat in a regular fashion. Therefore the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) quiver, instead of fully contracting.

When the heart is quivering it is not pumping effectively. This means that blood can pool in the heart instead of being pumped out as normal to the body, and as a result there is an increased risk of blood clots forming in the heart. If a clot is formed and pumped out of the heart, it can travel in the bloodstream to the brain where it can get lodged in a blood vessel causing a blockage. The area of the brain past the blockage can no longer receive the oxygen and nutrients that the blood normally delivers, causing brain cells to die. This is what happens in a stroke, or more specifically, in an Ischaemic Stroke (meaning a stroke caused by a blockage in the blood supply, as opposed to a bleed in the brain). Clots formed in the heart as a result of Atrial Fibrillation may be quite big and can block larger blood vessels in the brain, so strokes that are caused by Atrial Fibrillation generally are very severe and can result in extensive disabilities.

How do I find out if I have Atrial Fibrillation?

Many people with Atrial Fibrillation do not have any symptoms and therefore it is only discovered during a medical examination. Unfortunately for some, it is only diagnosed when they have been admitted to hospital with stroke as a result of their Atrial Fibrillation.

An irregular pulse could be a sign that you have Atrial Fibrillation.

During ‘Heart Rhythm Awareness Week’ Croí is emphasising the importance of having your pulse checked frequently when you visit your GP.

If your pulse is irregular the next step is to have a test called an electrocardiogram (ECG) which records the electrical activity of the heart. This will record the abnormal heart rhythm and a diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation can be confirmed. An ECG is a quick and painless procedure and is usually carried out in hospital or at your GP Practice.

However, it may be difficult to capture this irregular heart rhythm as Atrial Fibrillation can come and go without warning, so your doctor may ask you to wear a small portable recorder called a Holter Monitor. This monitor records the electrical activity of the heart just like an ECG but you will be asked to take this monitor home with you, and to wear it continuously over a 24 hour period, or longer, if necessary.

You can also check your own pulse. We have provided a quick guide below on how to check your pulse.

If you know how to check your own pulse and you notice your pulse feels irregular (“jumping around”), even if you feel well, you should visit your doctor or nurse for a check-up.

A quick guide to checking your own pulse

  • Step 1. Turn your left hand so your palm is facing upwards. Place the first two fingers of your right hand on the outer edge of your left wrist. You should place them at the base of your thumb near where the strap of a watch would sit.
  • Step 2. Using the pads of these fingers, slide your fingers toward the centre of your wrist until you find your pulse.
  • Step 3. Press your fingers down onto your wrist until you feel your pulse, being careful not to press too hard. Move your fingers around until the pulse is easy to feel.
  • Step 4. Once you have found your pulse, continue to feel it for 60 seconds. Pay attention to whether the pulse rhythm (pattern) seems regular or irregular. A regular pulse will feel even and consistent. An irregular pulse will feel erratic and unpredictable and feel like it is ‘jumping around’.

How is Atrial Fibrillation treated?

There are a number of treatment options for Atrial Fibrillation. This is decided on an individual basis depending on your medical history.

One option may be to restore the normal regular rhythm of the heart to help prevent a stroke. This can be done with medications or the use of electrical stimulation (a procedure called ‘cardioversion’).

Atrial Fibrillation management may also concentrate on protecting against blood clots that travel from the heart to the brain and cause strokes. Blood-thinning medications, known as anticoagulants work by preventing blood clots from forming and can reduce the risk of stroke in people who have Atrial Fibrillation.

Anticoagulants may not be suitable for all people and are recommended when the benefit is greater than the risk. If you have Atrial Fibrillation or are newly diagnosed your doctor will help you weigh up the pros and cons of taking anticoagulant medication and decide whether this treatment is right for you.

To find out more about Atrial Fibrillation (causes, signs and symptoms and treatments) please click here

This health awareness initiative is brought to you by Croí and kindly supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.