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Health Matters - Atrial fibrillation

Health Matters - Atrial fibrillation
04 October 2017

You may have heard of atrial fibrillation (AF). This is a condition of the heart that can often go undetected until people fall ill. It can lead to a stroke, and can produce symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness and fatigue.

As a GP, the diagnosis of AF is often made incidentally.  The pulse is typically irregular, jumping around constantly, fast and slow. It differs from the occasional missed beat, and can often result from high blood pressure or other conditions such as thyroid disorders or circulation problems.

AF is a mismatch between the beating of the different chambers of the heart. Rather than an orderly rhythmic beat, the heart flutters away, potentially leading to clots forming in the heart and travelling to the brain or other organs, leading to a stroke. If you feel your pulse in your wrist and it appears to be jumping around, then you may have AF and it’s important to see your practice nurse to get an ECG – a harmless test of your heart which can diagnose the condition.

Once diagnosed, doctors will be keen to control the rate of your heart and can even convert your heart back to a normal rhythm if caught early enough. It’s also important to control your blood pressure and to thin the blood to reduce the risk of clots.  

However, prevention is better than cure. The main cause of AF is high blood pressure, and keeping fit, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and a low salt diet will all help prevent AF and other serious health complications. If you are over 40 you should ideally see your GP for a health check with the nurse every few years.

Our heart beat is meant to vary, it will be fast and slow according to our activity and anxiety levels. Extra beats here and there are common and harmless but, while you are reading this, feel your pulse. If it is not regular and constantly jumping around, call your practice – it may save your life!