Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a common type of irregular heartbeat that raises your risk for stroke. Stroke prevention is a key part of AFib treatment, and there are different options depending on your:
- Medical history
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Why Does AFib Raise My Stroke Risk?
In AFib, your heart’s electrical system sends out irregular signals that make the top chambers of your heart beat out of sync with the bottom chambers. When this happens, your heart can’t pump the way it needs to.
When your heart can’t pump the right way, blood can pool in your heart and form clots. If a blood clot breaks loose, it can move to your brain and cause a stroke.
How High is My Risk for Stroke?
According to the American Heart Association, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than others. Each person’s risk for stroke is different, depending on:
- Your age. People who are 65 or older, especially those 75 or older, have a higher risk.
- Your gender. Women have a higher risk than men.
- Your medical history and other conditions. People who have congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes, vascular disease, or have had a stroke in the past have a higher risk.
What Are My Options for Stroke Prevention?
Your doctor will use your age, gender, and medical history to figure out how high your risk is and will determine the type of stroke prevention treatment that is best for you. This may include:
- Blood thinner medicines
- Left atrial appendage devices or surgery
Blood thinner medicines
Many people with AFib take blood thinner medicines, called anticoagulants, to prevent stroke. These medicines, like Warfarin (or the brand name Coumadin®), slow down the chemical reaction that happens when your blood tries to clot. They can also keep clots that have already formed from getting bigger.
Some blood thinner medicines require you to have your blood checked regularly to make sure they are working properly. And, blood thinners are not safe for everyone, especially people who have a high risk of bleeding.
Left atrial appendage devices and surgery
If you’re not able to take blood thinners, your doctor might suggest closing off or removing your left atrial appendage, or LAA. Your LAA is a sac-like branch at the top of the left chamber of your heart, where blood clots commonly form in people with AFib.
Depending on your medical history, risk factors, and lifestyle, your doctor might recommend:
- The WatchmanTM device, a recently FDA-approved parachute-shaped device that permanently closes off your LAA
- The Lariat procedure, which uses a lasso-like suture (or stitch) to permanently close off your LAA
- Having your LAA removed by a heart surgeon
Like all medical procedures, devices and surgery have risks and may not be safe for everyone. Your doctor can tell you more about these risks.
What Is the Best Treatment for Me?
Your doctor can help you figure out the best way to lower your stroke risk if you have AFib. Be sure to tell your doctor about all of the medicines you take, your medical history, and any concerns you have about your risk of bleeding.
To learn more about AFib and stroke prevention, visit the UPMC Center for Atrial Fibrillation online or call 1-844-HVI-AFIB (484-2342). You can also attend a free heart screening to learn more about your risk factors.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.