At Baton Rouge General, our doctors and team are trained in heart rhythm
conditions, known as arryhthmias, and what it can mean for their patients.
We take a collaborative approach to provide the most comprehensive care
for this and other heart conditions.
A normal heart pumps blood in a cyclical pattern, from the body to the
heart, into the lungs, back to the heart, and then back throughout the
body. When the heart is pumping correctly, the heart's two upper chambers
(atria) beat in coordination with the two lower chambers (ventricles),
maintaining proper blood flow. But if the heart beats irregularly, blood
flow becomes out of sync and this can result in serious complications.
Atrial fibrillation, often referred to as AFib, is a condition in which
the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, quickly and chaotically,
resulting in an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). This can increase
a person's risk of heart failure, stroke, and other heart-related
issues. One of the biggest concerns with AFib is the development of blood
clots, which can block blood flow to the brain or other organs in the body.
Symptoms of AFib may only occur occasionally (paroxysmal atrial fibrillation)
or persistently, depending on the severity of the condition. If symptoms
come and go, the patient does not always require treatment. If symptoms
are persistent, there is an increased risk for developing complications
and treatment is often necessary. AFib treatment may involve the use of
prescription medications or procedures designed to restore normal heart rhythm.
Causes of AFib
Heart structure abnormalities or heart damage are the most common causes
of atrial fibrillation. The condition may result from:
- congenital heart defects
- abnormal heart valves
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
- previous heart surgery or heart attack
- a problem with the heart's natural pacemaker (sick sinus syndrome)
- lung diseases
- sleep apnea
- a metabolic imbalance
A person's risk for developing AFib increases due to the factors above,
as well as advanced age, family history, obesity, and alcohol consumption.
Symptoms of AFib
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation may include:
- heart palpitations (the feeling of a racing or fluttery heartbeat)
- shortness of breath
- weakness or fatigue
- feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- chest pain
In some cases, a person with AFib does not experience any symptoms and
the condition is only discovered during a physical examination.
Complications of AFib
Individuals with atrial fibrillation are at risk for serious complications
including stroke and heart failure. Stroke can occur because the irregular
heart rhythm causes blood to pool in the heart's chambers and this
may result in the formation of clots. These clots can dislodge and block
blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke, or they can block blood flow
to other organs. Additionally, the presence of AFib weakens the heart
which can lead to heart failure. When this occurs, it makes it difficult
for the heart to circulate enough blood to meet the body's needs.
Prevention of AFib
The risk of developing atrial fibrillation and its associated complications
may be reduced by adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as:
- increasing physical activity
- eating a healthy diet
- maintaining a healthy weight
- quitting smoking
- limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine
- reducing stress
- using over-the-counter medications only as needed
Treatment of AFib
Atrial fibrillation may be treated with blood thinning medication to reduce
the risk of blood clots and/or medication to control heart rate and rhythm.
If medication is not working or cannot be used to treat a patient's
AFib due to side effects or other reasons, surgery may be recommended.
AFib surgery may be done using an open heart method or through minimal
access procedures that change the electrical pattern of the heart. Surgical
ablation procedures, referred to as the maze procedure or the mini maze
procedure, are known to offer the best long-term success in treating atrial
During the maze procedure, a surgeon creates lines of scar tissue in the
upper chambers of the heart in order to prevent the transmission of abnormal
impulses and to restore normal heart rhythm. The pattern of scar tissue
(maze) may be created using radiofrequency (heat), cryotherapy (freezing),
a laser, or a scalpel. By creating this scar tissue, electrical signals
are redirected in the heart through a more controlled passageway because
scar tissue cannot carry electrical signals, thus restoring normal rhythm.
The maze procedure may also include the removal of the left atrial appendage
(LAA) in order to reduce the risk of stroke due to AFib. The LAA is a
small sac located in the left atrium's muscle wall and serves no known
purpose. In patients with AFib, the chaotic movement of blood can cause
blood to fill the sac and form clots, leading to a stroke. Removing the
LAA reduces this risk.
Risks of AFib Surgery
As with any heart surgery, there are risks associated with surgical procedures
to treat AFib. Risks for minimal access procedures are less than those
for open heart surgery methods but may include:
- heart attack
- new heart arrhythmias
- need for a pacemaker
What to Expect After Surgery
As a general rule of thumb, patients spend a day or more in the intensive
care unit (ICU) following surgery. While there, they’ll receive
oxygen, fluids, nutrition, medication, and close medical supervision.
After a few days, patients are moved out of ICU and into a general hospital
room. During this time, medical staff will monitor for infection at the
incision site(s), manage any post-surgery pain, and periodically check
heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Patients will also engage in
daily walking and breathing exercises to promote recovery.
Patients may experience pain in the shoulders, chest, or ribs following
surgery, which can be treated with pain medications. Diuretic medications
may be prescribed for several weeks post-surgery to control fluid build-up.
In some cases, patients will also need to take blood thinners to prevent
the formation of blood clots. Patients may still have a few episodes of
AFib during the recovery process, but the procedure carries a high rate
of success in halting symptoms.