Atrial Fibrillation & Heart Valve Disease

By Adam Pick - Patient, Author & HeartValveSurgery.com Founder

Atrial fibrillation (also called AF or AFib) is a disturbance in the normal rhythm of the upper portions of the heart (the atria).

The irregular, chaotic AF rhythm means that the lower portions of the heart (the ventricles) are no longer receiving appropriate signals from the atria.

The upper and lower portions of the heart are no longer in coordination.

How Does AFib Impact Heart Valve Disease?

Atrial fibrillation is most commonly found in conjunction with mitral and tricuspid valve disorders. If these valves begin to narrow, blood pools up in the atria. If the valves begin to leak, ventricle pressure causes blood to backflow into the atria. Either of these valve conditions can cause the atria to become overwhelmed and enlarged, which in turn may cause AF.

When patient's experience heart valve disease and atrial fibrillation at the same time, surgical treatments are available to support the patient. In this video, Dr. Vincent Gaudiani, a leading heart surgeon who has performed over 10,000 cardiac procedures, addresses atrial fibrillation and heart valve disease. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Atrial Fibrillation

Although some people only discover their AF during a routine annual physical, most people experience symptoms. Some common symptoms are:

  • Chest palpitations – can feel like a racing heartbeat, an annoying irregular beat, or flopping heart
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • General weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain

What Are The Causes Of Atrial Fibrillation?

The heart is comprised of two atria (upper chambers) and two ventricles (lower chambers). The sinus node, a small group of cells located within the right atria, sends out electrical impulses which control the rate of your heart and begins each heartbeat. During atrial fibrillation, the atria receive irregular, turbulent signals which essentially cause the chambers to quiver, or fibrillate. The resulting heart rhythm is fast and irregular, ranging from 100 to 175 beats per minute. A normal heart beats from 60 to 100 beats per minute.

The most common causes of AF are either damage to the structure of the heart or heart defects with which you are born. Some common causes are:

  • Abnormal heart valves such as mitral or tricuspid
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Overexposure to stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, or medications
  • Metabolic imbalances such as an overactive thyroid gland
  • Improper functioning of the sinus node (sick sinus syndrome)
  • Lung diseases such as emphysema
  • Viral infections
  • Sleep apnea
  • Stress caused by previous heart surgery or other illnesses

Some people who experience AF have no heart defects or damage at all. This condition is called "lone atrial fibrillation" and rarely results in serious complications. The cause of this phenomenon is unknown.

What Are AFib Risk Factors?

As with many other diseases, there are certain factors which have come to be associated with an increased incidence of atrial fibrillation. Some of these factors are:

  • Age – The risk of AF increases as you get older.
  • Family history – AF tends to occur in many members of some families.
  • Heart disease – People who have heart disease, problems with heart valves, history of heart attacks or previous heart surgery are at an increased risk.
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol consumption – AF can be triggered by alcohol consumption in some people. Binge drinking can also increase your risk.
  • Other chronic conditions – An increased risk exists for people who have sleep apnea, hyperactive thyroid, or other chronic medical problems.

What Complications Can Atrial Fibrillation Cause?

Some of the most common and serious complications for patients are:

  • Stroke – Because atrial fibrillation can cause blood to back up in the atria, a clot can sometimes form. If the clot travels to your brain and blocks blood flow, a stroke can result.
  • Heart failure – AF can make the heart work too hard and it becomes weak. This results in your heart being unable to pump enough blood to meet the needs of your body. 

Can Patients Experience AFib After Heart Valve Surgery?

In this video, Dr. Niv Ad, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Inova Heart & Vascular, addresses the reality of patients who experience atrial fibrillation after heart valve surgery. 

 

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