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Don’t skip a beat: The dangers of cardiac arrhythmia

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Fast, slow or in-between, an irregular heartbeat gets your attention. Most of the time, it is nothing to worry about, but if it begins to happen frequently, it just might be a more serious cardiac arrhythmia, a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heart.

Many of us have occasional, harmless fluttering or racing heartbeats, but sometimes the irregular beats can signal something serious, even life threatening. In arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, which can damage the brain, heart and other organs. If you experience regular arrhythmias, check with your doctor.

The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AF), a fast and chaotic beating in the atrial chambers of the heart. According to a study published in the journal Circulation in 2011, approximately 3 million American adults suffer atrial fibrillation, a number expected to double over the next 25 years. If uncontrolled, AF is a leading cause of stroke and heart failure.

The symptoms associated with AF include palpitations, fainting, chest pain and shortness of breath, yet sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Atrial fibrillation can be detected with an electrocardiogram (also called an EKG), a simple, painless test that records the heart’s electrical activity.

The good news is that atrial fibrillation, along with other arrhythmias, can be treated both medically and surgically. If you think you are experiencing a heart rhythm disorder, see your physician and then learn as much as possible about the condition. A number of resources to consult are discussed below.

Interested in watching a video? Two DVDs on the shelves at Stanford Health Library might be just the ticket. “Understanding Atrial Fibrillation” (Stanford Health Video Library, 2009) features Stanford physicians Paul Wang, Henry Hsia, Amin Al-Ahmad and Paul Zei in a presentation given as part of the Stanford Health Library Community Lecture series. The video discusses ongoing research and developments in diagnosing and treating the condition.

“The Science of Treating Atrial Fibrillation” (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2010) is a 24-minute video that discusses advances in diagnosis and treatment. The DVD, intended for a lay audience, takes viewers into an operating room to see procedures such as surgical ablation. Patient stories and expert testimony are emphasized to demonstrate the benefits of effective therapy.

When drug therapies fail to improve an arrhythmia, implantable cardiac devices, including pacemakers, implantable cardioverter defibrillators and cardiac resynchronization therapy devices may be used. Decisions to use these devices often must be made quickly without full understanding of patients or family members. And, finding patient-friendly information can be difficult.

Enter “Understanding Your Pacemaker or Defibrillator: What Patients and Families Need to Know” (Cardiotext Publishing, 2012). This book provides an easy-to-understand yet thorough discussion of implantable cardiac devices. One of the book’s strengths comes from the varied backgrounds of its three authors: David Hayes, M.D., is a cardiologist; Matt Noble is a technician for a cardiac device manufacturer and a patient who lives with an implantable cardiac device; and Rebecca Fallon is a psychologist who works in patient education for a device manufacturer.

The book begins with an explanation of normal and abnormal heart function before describing the different types of devices and their applications. Patients are told what to expect before, during and after the implantation procedure, including possible complications and the pros and cons of living with an implantable device. If you or someone you know is considering a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator, this is the book for you.

For those who want a book that addresses the range of heart rhythm disorders, a good choice is “You and Your Arrhythmia: A Guide to Heart Rhythm Problems for Patients and Their Families” (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2006). With this book, author John A. Kastor has filled a void. It is difficult to find patient-level books on arrhythmia. In a short 142 pages, the book provides a good overview of the subject and includes an excellent explanation of how the heart works as both a pump and as an electrical organ. Using case studies, the various types and causes of arrhythmias are discussed, as are medical and interventional treatments, including pacemakers. Diagnostic procedures, including electrocardiogram, are explained. All in all, this book is a valuable read for those who experience cardiac arrhythmia.

There are many more excellent heart health resources at Stanford Health Library, where research assistance and information packets are available free of charge. Branches are located at the Stanford Shopping Center near Bloomingdale’s, on the third floor of Stanford Hospital and on the main level of Stanford’s new Cancer Center.

For more information, call the Health Library at 725-8400, visit healthlibrary.stanford.edu or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Nancy Dickenson is head librarian at Stanford Health Library.

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