If identified early, the debilitating effects of atrial fibrillation can be reduced.

Rakesh Sharma, a 55-year-old army officer, had not bargained for a hospital stint when setting out for his morning walk. Hit by a sudden bout of dizziness and breathlessness, he sat down on a bench and felt his heart miss a beat.

Four doctor visits and innumerable tests later, it emerged that Rakesh had a heart condition called atrial fibrillation. Rakesh is only one of a large number of people grappling with its debilitating effects. Atrial fibrillation is a condition that changes the way the heart rhythm is controlled. Basically, it causes the upper chambers of the heart (atria) to beat rapidly and in an uncontrolled manner (fibrillation).

Related problems

Increased risk of morbidity and mortality related to the condition is a grave concern as it is a leading cause of stroke and heart failure in older people. In addition to age, other commonly associated factors include high blood pressure, heart valve disease, thyroid problems and sleep apnea.

The mainstay of treatment is use of anti-arrhythmic drugs. Some patients may need emergency treatment to get the heart back into normal rhythm. This may involve cardioversion (or DC shock) or intravenous drugs. There are other interventional procedures like 3D mapping guided radiofrequency catheter ablation and radiofrequency catheter ablation.

New options

Antiarrhythmic drugs are effective in only around 50 per cent of patients and some drugs have considerable side effects if continued for long. But technological advances have ensured the availability of some very effective and useful alternatives. Radiofrequency catheter ablation therapy is superior to anti-arrhythmic drug therapy especially in non-valvular AF without any long-term side effects.

With age, the human body tends to experience many changes; often for the worse. Therefore it is always better to diagnose and treat these conditions early. This clearly underlines the importance of regular monitoring and check ups. For rhythm disorders like atrial fibrillation this may just be your best bet.

The writer is a Chennai-based Consultant Electrophysiologist.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012