More than five million people in the United States suffer from atrial fibrillation (“AFib”), the most common cause of irregular heartbeat. By the year 2030, it is expected that more than 12 million Americans will suffer from AFib.
Although its cause is often unknown, AFib occurs when the electrical impulses that control the way the heart beats become irregular. AFib becomes more common after age 60 and is often seen in patients with high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea and other conditions.
“Normally, the heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute, but in people with AFib, the heart can race very fast,” says Jorge Gonzalez, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic. “This can lead to symptoms that include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest discomfort and dizziness, although some people with AFib have no symptoms at all.”
AFib can cause blood to stagnate or pool in the left atrium, where the blood may clot. These clots can break loose and travel through the bloodstream and up to the brain, where they can cause a stroke.
“Patients with AFib have five times the risk of stroke than people who have a normal heart rhythm,” says Dr. Gonzalez.
To reduce the risk of stroke caused by blood clots, many AFib patients take blood-thinning drugs, which can be challenging. Blood thinners may cause patients to bruise easily and have a higher risk of severe bleeding problems. Also, frequent blood tests are required to monitor the thickness of the blood.
A FDA-approved device called Watchman is revolutionizing the way AFib patients are treated. The tiny, parachute-like device reduces the risk of stroke and eliminates the need for blood thinning medications in many AFib patients. Scripps cardiologists were among the first in the country to perform the implants of the device, and Scripps now implants the most Watchman devices in the United States.
“The Watchman is designed to close off the left atrial appendage, thereby preventing blood clots from going to the brain,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “The device is implanted into the heart without surgery. The patient is given a local anesthetic, and the catheter is inserted through a small incision in the groin and threaded through the vein up to the heart.”
The procedure takes one to two hours, and patients usually spend one night in the hospital. Most patients can stop taking blood thinning medications 45 days after a successful Watchman implant.