Discover the life-threatening risks of atrial fibrillation and what you can do to reduce the risks

Atrial fibrillation is a common heart disorder that is present in an estimated 2.3 million people in the United States.  Unfortunately, most people know very little about this potential life-threatening condition, even those who have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Primary care physicians often treat atrial fibrillation without explaining the risks of stroke associated with the condition and how treatment with blood thinners can reduce the risk of stroke by seven-fold.

First, what is atrial fibrillation? "Atrial" refers to the upper chambers of the heart known as the right and left atrium and "fibrillation" refers to quivering of the atrium.   Instead of normal contractions of the atrium, the right or left atrim quiver almost like a spasm.   The uncoordinated quivering of the right or left atrium of the heart can lead to the pooling of blood in the atrium and instead of squeezing blood from the atrium into the lower chambers of the heart, known as the ventricles, the blood stagnates in the atrium.  When blood pools and stagnates in the right or left atrium of the heart, it is much more prone to form a blood clot. This is where the real danger lies!

Blood clots formed in the atrium can travel through the aorta to the carotid arteries in the neck to (you guessed it) the arteries within the brain.  When blood clots get stuck in the arteries of the brain, the flow of blood to certain areas of the brain can be blocked.  When this occurs, those areas of the brain are deprived of oxygen and death of brain tissue (known as a cerebral infarction) can happen.  This kind of stroke is known as an ischemic stroke.

The risk of an ischemic stroke is increased seven-fold for persons with atrial fibrillation due to tendency of such persons to develop blood clots.  Stroke is the number one cause of death in the United States and for those persons with atrial fibrillation, the risk of stoke is seven times greater than the average person.  Those affected by stroke often suffer partial paralysis on one side of the body, speech and cognitive deficits, and bowel and bladder incontinence. Stroke victims often require long-term rehabilitation in a rehabilitation facility and their lives are forever changed.

What can a person diagnosed with atrial fibrillation do to avoid the risk?  Anticoagulant therapy, also known as blood thinners, are the treatment for atrial fibrillation.  Blood thinners, such as Coumadin, thin the blood and help prevent blood clots from forming in the heart.  Anticoagulant therapy is not guaranteed to prevent a stroke for persons diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, but just like wearing a seat belt, it substantially reduces the risk.

Real simple stuff, right?  It should be.  Here's the problem: most persons diagnosed with atrial fibrillation are never told by their physician about the risk of stroke and that blood thinners substantially reduce the risk of stroke. Many primary care physicians simply prescribe Coumadin or Warfarin (generic name for blood thinners) without explaining the purpose and benefit of the medication.

Patient education is always important, but rarely more so than with persons diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.  If you ask your mother or father why they take Coumadin for atrial fibrillation, they will likely hold up their hands to indicate "I don't know".  That's a real shame.  It's not enough to prescribe the blood thinners to atrial fibrillation patients--such patients must be educated about atrial fibrillation.  This is a common mistake made all the time by primary care physicians treating patients for atrial fibrillation.

The next time you speak to your mother or father make sure you ask them to explain to you why they take Coumadin for atrial fibrillation.  There's a good chance they won't be able to tell you.  That's when you should take this article and review it with them.  The time that you spend explaining atrial fibrillation and the risks and benefits of treatment could make all the difference in helping your parents prevent a stroke.