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Slideshow: How to Treat Atrial Fibrillation

Aspirin for AFib

When you have atrial fibrillation, your heartbeat is irregular. Blood doesn't flow as efficiently as it should and clots may form in your heart. If a clot travels to your brain, it can cause a stroke. Many people with AFib are more likely to have strokes. Aspirin may be recommended for some people with AFib who aren't treated with other blood thinners. Side effects from aspirin or blood thinners can include nosebleeds to ulcers, so talk to your doctor first.

Warfarin for AFib

If you have AFib your doctor will probably prescribe a more powerful blood thinner called an anticoagulant, especially if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart failure. The most common is warfarin (Coumadin). Warfarin can often cut your risk of stroke, but requires close monitoring. You’ll need frequent blood tests and will have to be careful to avoid heavy bleeding from cuts or other injuries. Your doctor will also talk to you about certain foods that interact with warfarin.

New Blood Thinners

Recently, the FDA approved new anticoagulants to treat AFib not caused by a heart valve problem. These medications reduce the risk of stroke. You don’t have to have regular blood tests. Plus, these new medicines don’t interact with foods. As with other anticoagulant medication, there's a chance you’ll have problems with bleeding.

Slow Down Your Racing Heart

If your heart is racing, medicine can slow it down and decrease the strain on your heart muscle. Slowing it below 100 beats per minute can help you feel stronger. Doctors often prescribe either beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers, depending on your health.

Reset an Irregular Heart Rhythm

In some people with AFib, electrical cardioversion may be recommended to "reset" your heart’s rhythm. Using mild anesthesia, a doctor uses patches or paddles to gently shock the heart. You may need ultrasound first to check for clots in your heart. If there is a clot, you’ll take blood thinners for a few weeks before your procedure.

Heart Reset With Antiarrhythmics

Electrical cardioversion often works to restore a regular heart rhythm, but about half of people get AFib again. So medications called "antiarrhythmics" are sometimes used to help keep the heartbeat regular. With these, you'll need close monitoring. They can have various side effects including heart rhythm problems.

Ablation for AFib

If drugs and electrical treatments aren’t working, your doctor may suggest a procedure called ablation. While you're sedated, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into a blood vessel and guided to the spot in your heart that is misfiring. The surgeon then destroys the tissue area by heating or freezing it. Depending on your treatment type, you may need a pacemaker, too.

Pacemaker for Steady Beat

If your heart beats too slowly, you may need a pacemaker. This small, battery-powered device is implanted near your collarbone, with wires leading to your heart. After surgery, you’ll need to avoid pulling on the area, but soon you may be able to go back to normal activities. Most electronics like microwaves or phones won’t interfere with your pacemaker, but some security systems and headphones can. You’ll learn what to avoid and how to check your own pulse.

Heart Surgery for AFib

If medication and simpler procedures haven't helped your AFib, or if you have certain other heart problems, your doctor may recommend an operation called a Maze procedure. The surgeon makes precise cuts or scars on the heart's upper chambers to interrupt the electrical signals that throw off your heart rhythm. Sometimes this can be done with only a tiny "keyhole" incision. If the surgery works, people with AFib may have fewer symptoms and can usually do all normal activities.

Lifestyle Changes for AFib

No matter how you treat your AFib, there are lifestyle changes you can make to help your heart. Eat a heart-healthy diet. Cut back on the caffeine you drink. Some people find that coffee, sodas, and tea can make their symptoms worse. Read medicine labels to check for decongestants -- especially in cold and cough medicines. Limit alcohol to no more than 1 to 2 drinks a day. If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms get worse.

Living Well With Atrial Fibrillation

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on February 12, 2014

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