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Dr. Morton Rinder, St. Luke's Hospital

Treatment for atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, that causes the heart to beat erratically and faster than the normal heart rate. Some people detect symptoms of shortness of breath or palpitations during the arrhythmia, but many do not.

Atrial fibrillation has become one of the most prevalent cardiac problems in the United States. Some estimate that more than 16 million Americans may be affected by the year 2050. The chances of developing atrial fibrillation increase with age. They also increase with the presence of diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure or sleep apnea.

Studies show atrial fibrillation affects women differently than men. Since women tend to live longer than men, they are more likely to be older at the time of diagnosis and perhaps more likely to experience symptoms or a stroke.

Recently, the Anticoagulation and Risk Factors in Atrial Fibrillation (ATRIA) study looked at those affected by atrial fibrillation - both men and women. It found women who do not take Coumadin (warfarin), a common blood thinner to treat atrial fibrillation, had a higher risk for stroke than men who did not take the medication. It is not entirely clear why Coumadin therapy appears to be more effective for women, but these results should remind all people with atrial fibrillation, especially women, that blood thinners are crucial for proper treatment.

For patients with significant symptoms of atrial fibrillation, cardiologists may try surgical procedures including catheter ablation, a procedure used to selectively ablate, or destroy, abnormal tissue areas in the heart causing the arrhythmia. It is still too early to know if women are more or less responsive to this technique than men. However, women who take medications to maintain a normal rhythm seem to be more likely to have side effects from drugs. Thus, catheter ablation may be a very attractive alternative to maintain a normal rhythm and stop symptoms such as shortness of breath and palpitations.

As you can see, there are several important issues patients with atrial fibrillation must address. You should consult your physician to discuss your individual needs.

Dr. Morton Rinder specializes in internal medicine, general cardiology and interventional cardiology at Premier Heart Group, located on St. Luke's Hospital's campus. Call 314-485-3500 or visit his Physician Referral page. You can also find out more about St. Luke's Atrial Fibrillation Center here.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 25, 2010.