Atrial Fibrillation Complications
If you have a-fib, you’re concerned about atrial fibrillation complications. My husband suffers from this condition, along with several of its symptoms. In his case, they include fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, and racing palpitations. A-fib is scary, though it’s not usually immediately life-threatening. The serious health problems might come later, with atrial fibrillation complications.
One of the most serious of the atrial fibrillation complications is an increased chance of stroke. In fact, if you have untreated a-fib, your chances of stroke are up to seven times greater than for someone with a normal heart rhythm. Because the blood tends to pool in the heart with a-fib, blood clots can easily form. Should one of these clots break free and travel to the brain, a stroke will occur. Strokes caused by a-fib are usually more severe than strokes from other causes. Almost one-quarter of atrial fib strokes result in death, as compared to only an 8% death rate from other types of strokes. Also, almost half of all atrial fibrillation strokes will result in moderate to severe neurological damage.
Pulmonary embolism is also among the more dangerous atrial fibrillation complications. This occurs when a clot breaks free and travels through the bloodstream, blocking an artery in the lung. Because the lung won’t receive adequate blood flow due to the blockage, the lung can be permanently damaged. Large clots or multiple smaller clots in the lung can be life-threatening.
Another one of the significant atrial fibrillation complications is dementia. Because someone suffering from a-fib is not getting enough oxygenated blood to the brain, dementia can result. This is especially true in the case of chronic, untreated atrial fibrillation. When the brain’s oxygen supply is regularly diminished, the condition can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Atrial fibrillation complications can also include a weakened heart. With a-fib, the ventricles are overworked and might weaken over time, resulting in heart failure. When the body doesn’t get the blood supply it needs, it might compensate by retaining fluid. If this fluid pools in the lungs, it’s called pulmonary edema. When this happens, carbon dioxide levels in the blood rise, while oxygen levels drop. Pulmonary edema is a serious condition that can result in death.
Mitral valve problems are also among the atrial fibrillation complications. The mitral valve is located between the atria and the ventricles. It, along with the tricuspid valve, controls the blood flow of the heart with a sphincter-like action. With a-fib, the valve can weaken and result in mitral valve regurgitation.
Other atrial fibrillation complications can affect internal organs. These might be seen less often, but they can occur. During my husband’s recent bout with atrial fibrillation, his intestines temporarily shut down. According to his team of doctors, this happened because his intestines were not receiving enough oxygenated blood. His a-fib caused “early ileus.” Ileus is similar to a bowel obstruction, but there’s nothing in the bowel causing the blockage. Instead, the bowel is temporarily paralyzed, and the peristalsis action dramatically decreases or stops altogether. Peristalsis is how the bowel pushes stool through the colon and small intestine, with a series of wave-like contractions.
Of all the atrial fibrillation complications possible, the doctors seemed most concerned about his early ileus. They felt that the chance of stroke could be significantly reduced with the use of antiplatelet and anticoagulant medications, but the ileus proved to be tricky to deal with. Peristalsis generally improves with physical movement, but whenever he tried to walk, his heart rate would dangerously increase. Even sitting up in the hospital bed would cause such an increase, so this option was ruled out. Eating also stimulates peristalsis, but he couldn’t eat because of severe nausea that was caused by ileus. It was a vicious cycle.
The ileus seemed even more serious in my husband’s case because he had a ruptured intestine years ago and still has a lot of scar tissue and adhesions. The ileus was very painful, too. He had to stay on a diet of clear liquids, then full liquids, then soft foods. A couple of times he advanced too quickly with his diet and had to start over with clear liquids only. Gradually, the early ileus cleared up.
In and of itself, atrial fibrillation is not usually deadly, but it can be the direct cause of other serious conditions if left untreated. If you have any kind of cardiac arrhythmia, don’t ignore it. See a cardiologist and take care of it as soon as possible. Be diligent in taking any prescribed medications and follow your doctor’s orders to the tee. If you don’t, you could open the door to any number of atrial fibrillation complications.
More about atrial fibrillation and other conditions:
- A Guide to Atrial Fibrillation
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