When you have atrial fibrillation, or AFib, your heart has an irregular, sometimes quick rhythm. The condition can boost your chances for a stroke, heart failure, or other heart problems. Right now, there’s no cure for it. But certain treatments can make symptoms go away for a long time for some people. No matter what, there are many ways to manage AFib that can help you live a healthy, active life.
Treatment for AFib
Electrical cardioversion. This uses electrical shocks on the outside of your chest to help your heart get its normal rhythm back. Doctors place paddles or patches on your body to deliver a low level of electricity. (You get medicine to put you to sleep during the procedure.) If you’ve had AFib for a short time, this treatment may be able to reset your heart’s rhythm right away. But later on, your heart could start beating abnormally again.
Medication. Different types of medicines target three key problems with AFib:
- Drugs to get your heart back to a normal rhythm, usually a medicine called amiodarone.
- Drugs to control your heart rate. Your doctor may give you medicine to slow your heartbeat down, while keeping the rhythm of your heart the same. Options include drugs known as beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, or a medicine called digoxin (Digox, Lanoxin).
- Drugs for blood clots. Blood thinners will help you avoid blood clots that could lead to a stroke.
For most people, medicines can improve symptoms and help your heart work better. But they don’t get rid of AFib entirely. Also, a few of the drugs can cause side effects that make some people want to stop taking them. If side effects bother you too much, talk to your doctor before you quit your medicine.
Radiofrequency ablation or catheter ablation. In this procedure, doctors destroy some of the heart tissue that creates the abnormal rhythm of AFib. They put a small tube, or catheter, through a blood vessel and up to the heart. It creates small scars using energy from laser beams, radio waves, or extreme cold. If the ablation works well, it can fix the misfiring electrical signals that cause AFib symptoms. It’s not technically a cure, but for some people, it can keep symptoms away for a long time. It tends to work best in younger people and those who have recurrent AFib.
Pacemaker. If other treatments haven’t helped, your doctor may recommend putting this small electrical device into your body to control your heartbeat. Wires from the pacemaker release electrical signals into your heart, helping it return to a normal rhythm and speed. It can be an option when AFib makes your heart rate very slow from time to time. Your doctor might use ablation along with your pacemaker.
Open-heart maze procedure. Your doctor may recommend this operation if you need open-heart surgery for another reason. A surgeon creates little cuts in the top of your heart and stitches the openings together. The goal is to create scar tissue that will block electrical signals that can cause AFib, and then restore your regular heartbeat.
A Healthy Life With AFib
Along with treatment your doctor prescribes, there are many ways you can take care of your heart to live a long and active life with AFib. The right habits make you less likely to have other health problems, or complications, because of AFib. Make sure you:
Some types of health problems can lead to AFib symptoms, too. Make sure you keep your other medical conditions under control, including: