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Why Your A-fib Diagnosis May Not Be as Bad as You Think It Is

With breathtaking speed, atrial fibrillation has gone from “Huh?” to parlance.

“A-fib”, a common cardiac cause of palpitations, is now in the front ranks of evils lurking to smite our well-being. There is no mystery to this transformation. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration licensed three new drugs to prevent a stroke, the fearful complication of A-fib: apixaban (Eliquis), rivaroxaban (Xarelto) and dibatigatran (Pradaxa).

This unleashed the full might of pharmaceutical marketing: the scientific data for efficacy that convinced the FDA is tortured till it convinced “thought leaders” whose opinions convinced influential journalists. Sales pitches populate print, broadcast and social media. A-fib is now more than a worrisome disease; it is a product line.

Nonetheless, A-fib can be scary for those afflicted. There are lots of choices to make and a lot of confusing, conflictual and counter-intuitive advice to deal with. Troubled by this situation, Mr. X recently sought me out to have a dialogue about his situation.

Mr. X is a 70-year-old business executive who has enjoyed robust good health and is on no prescription drugs. He exercises vigorously and is a consumer of various over the counter treatments purveyed as salutary. Like many “health-wise” Americans, he also takes 80mg of aspirin a day unaware that the benefit is minimal at best and is counterbalanced by a similar magnitude of risk.

A month earlier he had the sudden onset of palpitations, a fluttering in his chest that made him exceedingly anxious and somewhat breathless. He waited an hour before asking his wife to drive him to the local emergency room. By the time he was first seen, another hour passed. The diagnosis of A-fib followed. Another hour passed to find the consulting cardiologists debating whether to convert the A-fib to a normal rhythm by using drugs or an electrical shock.

Before they could decide, Mr X’s heart decided to behave again; he was back in a normal rhythm. It was a frightening experience for Mr. and Mrs. X. He left the ED shaken and shaky.

He also left with a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist who specialized in rhythm disorders and a prescription for a drug that slowed the conduction of electrical impulses initiating in one heart chamber, the right atrium, and traversing the heart. The normal “pacemaker” is a specialized cluster of muscle cells in the right atrium that discharges at regular intervals, initiating a current that causes the heart to contract in the synchronized fashion termed Normal Sinus Rhythm.

In A-fib, for reasons that are poorly understood, multiple pacemakers form in the right atrium leading to chaotic discharging and circular currents in the right atrium. How many of these impulses manage to exit the atrium to traverse the heart depends on the capacity of the conducting tissues; most just stay confined to the atrium causing it to quiver ineffectively.

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