How an Atrial Fibrillation Screening Can Help Prevent a Stroke

There’s no doubt that atrial fibrillation increases your risk for stroke, and its impact is substantial. When you have atrial fibrillation, your chances of having a stroke are as much as five times higher compared to people with a healthy heart.

At Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute, Dr. Laura Fernandes and our team offer comprehensive cardiovascular care for each patient. That means helping you prevent atrial fibrillation whenever possible, providing exceptional care once atrial fibrillation is diagnosed, and placing a high priority on avoiding a stroke.

Atrial fibrillation screening can detect the condition before you suspect a problem, giving you the chance to start stroke prevention.

How atrial fibrillation causes strokes

Atrial fibrillation is a type of heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that typically results in rapid and chaotic muscle contractions in the upper chambers of the heart.

In a healthy heart, the natural pacemaker in the upper right chamber sends out regular electrical impulses. These impulses must travel through the heart in a specific order to ensure that all the muscles work together to contract and push blood through the heart.

When something goes wrong with the electrical system, your heart rate changes, a condition called arrhythmia. You can develop a slow heart rate (bradycardia), a fast heart rate (tachycardia), or an irregular heartbeat, which is atrial fibrillation.

During atrial fibrillation, the two upper chambers tend to flutter rather than produce a strong contraction. As a result, blood doesn’t flow normally through your heart. Instead, it pools in the bottom of the chambers and in a small sac in the wall of the left atrium called the left atrial appendage.

Any time blood flow slows down or pools, it thickens, and blood clots can develop. If a blood clot leaves your heart and travels through the arteries to your brain, it can block blood vessels in the brain and cause a stroke.

Screening detects atrial fibrillation before you have symptoms

Most people don’t schedule an appointment to have their heart checked until they experience symptoms. But there’s a big problem with that approach, because the absence of symptoms does not reflect the health of your heart.

In up to 90% of atrial fibrillation episodes, you probably won’t experience symptoms. That means the only way to detect atrial fibrillation before a serious event like a stroke is with screening.

We screen for atrial fibrillation using a three-pronged approach. First, we review your medical history and perform a physical exam. The second step is determining your risk of having atrial fibrillation.

Though atrial fibrillation can occur at any age, your risk increases as you get older. 

Other risk factors we look for include:

The third step in screening for atrial fibrillation is performing an electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG shows your heart’s electrical activity, which may reveal abnormalities. 

Since the ECG only gives us a picture of your heart in the short time you’re tested, we may also ask you to wear a Holter monitor for a few days.

A Holter monitor is like a long-term ECG. It continuously records your heartbeat while you wear the device, giving us a better chance of detecting arrhythmias.

Preventing strokes when you have atrial fibrillation

If we diagnose atrial fibrillation, we can help you prevent a stroke by aggressively treating your irregular heartbeat and prescribing anticoagulant medications or antiplatelet therapy. 

Warfarin is a long-standing anticoagulant, but today we also have newer medications that thin your blood and prevent strokes without needing routine blood tests. Anticoagulant medications can significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke while we take steps to control or cure your arrhythmia.

To learn if you should consider atrial fibrillation screening, call our office in The Woodlands, Texas, or schedule an appointment online.

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