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Should Competitive Cyclists Undergo Cardiac Ablation For Atrial Fibrillation?

The number of emails that come from fellow cyclists (and endurance athletes) with heart rhythm issues amazes me. I am more convinced than ever that our “hobby” predisposes us to electrical issues like atrial fibrillation (AF)—that the science is right.

Obviously, my pedaling “habit” creates an exposure bias. I hear from many of you because we cyclists understand each other. Like you, I consider not competing a lousy treatment option.

As a bike racer, I know things: that prancing on an elliptical trainer at a health club doesn’t cut it, and, that spin classes may look hard, but do not come close to simulating real competition. I know the extent of the inflammation required to close that gap, to avoid getting dropped when one of the local Cancellara-types have you in the gutter in a cross-wind, or the worst one of all, to turn yourself inside out to stay with a group of climbers over the crest of a seemingly endless hill—”ten more pedal strokes and I’m out”…Then ten turns to 20, then 40, and maybe you hang, and maybe not. The common denominator of all this: suffering.

It’s little wonder that we get AF.

With that as a backdrop, my goal for this post is to provide a modest amount of insight to the most common question asked by athletes with AF.

“Should I have an ablation, or not.”

Though my two episodes of heart chaos amount to only a mild case of AF, I think it’s fair to say that personal experience with a problem helps a doctor better understand your choice. I’ve thought to myself, on more than one occasion, what would I do if the watt-sucking irregularity persisted? Would I have an ablation; would I live with it; would I stop drinking so much coffee? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

Cardiologists Not Needed: A Nurse And A Computer Will Do

Wait…

Before reading any further, I would like to issue a warning. If your ideas about healthcare delivery are of an older ilk; if you cling white-knuckled to past dogma, please stop reading now. What follows may cause your atria to fibrillate.

Last month I wrote that the best tool for treating atrial fibrillation (AF) was to give patients information—to teach them about their AF, its complications, role of lifestyle factors and the many treatment options. I didn’t say this was easy. In fact, thoroughly explaining AF takes nearly the same time it takes me to isolate the pulmonary veins–a lot longer than the 10 minutes allotted for a typical office visit. (Remember: of a 30 minute office visit, I have to review your chart, listen attentively to your story, examine you, and complete the e-record. That doesn’t leave much time for teaching.)

I was serious about the role of education in AF therapy, but I didn’t have any hard data to support such a bold claim. All I could offer was 15 years of experience on the front lines of treating AF—cardiology’s most expensive and prevalent disease.

But now I have found some real-world data to support the thesis that good teaching translates to better AF outcomes. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

The Hug That May Have Saved A Life

Every once in a while we physicians make an astute (or perhaps lucky) observation that becomes a turning point in a patient’s life.

I’ll never forget the time that I placed a hand on an elderly woman’s belly after she said that she felt a little bit dizzy – the pulsatile abdominal mass that I discovered set in motion a cascade of events that resulted in life-saving surgery for an disecting abdominal  aortic aneurysm (AAA). It was incredibly gratifying to be involved in saving her life – and now anyone who so much as swoons in my vicinity gets a tummy rub! (Yes, Dr. Groopman I know that’s not necessarily a rational response to one lucky “exam finding.”)

Last week I made a fortunate “catch” on the order of the AAA discovery from years ago. I was giving a close friend of mine a hug (he’s significantly taller than I am) when I noticed that his heart was beating rather quickly through his shirt. I instinctively grabbed his wrist to check his pulse, and voilà – it was irregularly irregular. My friend had new onset atrial fibrillation – and although he was initially resistant to my idea of going straight to the ER, I eventually convinced him to come with me. An EKG confirmed my clinical diagnosis, and blood thinners (with Pradaxa) and a rate control agent were administered. He will undergo cardioversion in a couple of weeks. We were both relieved that our intervention may well have averted a stroke, heart failure, or worse.

My peers at the hospital have been poking fun at me for my hug diagnosis, and my reputation as the “hug doctor” now preceeds me. I continue to protest that I do know how to use a stethoscope  – but alas, there have been more requests for stat hugs from me than cardiopulmonary exams.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top this clinical diagnosis, but a life of trying to find my next case of atrial fibrillation through hugging will likely make a few people smile.

Is Turbulence Good For The Heart?

It’s hard to believe that turbulence could be a good thing for the heart. Consider how the word turbulent is defined: “Characterized by conflict, disorder, or confusion; not controlled or calm.” Those traits don’t sound very heart-healthy. But when it comes to heart rhythm, it turns out that a turbulent response — to a premature beat — is better than a blunted one. The more turbulent the better.

No, you haven’t missed anything, and turbulence isn’t another of my typos. Until [recently], heart rate turbulence was an obscure phenomenon buried in the bowels of heart rhythm journals.

What Is Heart Rate Turbulence (HRT)?

When you listen to the heart of a young physically-fit patient, you are struck not just by the slowness of the heartbeat, but also by the variability of the rhythm. It isn’t perfectly regular, nor is it chaotic like atrial fibrillation (AF). Doctors describe this — in typical medical speak — as regularly irregular: The heart rate increases as the patient inhales and slows as he or she exhales. This variability occurs as a result of the heart’s responsiveness to its environment. The more robustly and quickly the heart responds, the healthier it is.

HRT seeks to measure how quickly and vigorously the heart rate reacts in response to a single premature beat from the ventricle — a premature ventricular contraction (PVC).  Normally after a PVC, the heart rate speeds for a few beats, and then slows back to baseline over the next 10 beats. The healthy heart responds with a more intense rise in heart rate and a quicker return to baseline. Using simple measurements of heart rate from a standard 24-hour electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor, a propriety software program averages many of these responses and comes up with a measurement of turbulence onset and turbulence slope. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

The Business Of Anticoagulation

This is a guest post by Dr. Juliet Mavromatis:

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The emergence of a new generation of anticoagulants, including the direct thrombin inhibitor, dabigatran and the factor Xa inhibitor, rivaroxaban, has the potential to significantly change the business of thinning blood in the United States. For years warfarin has been the main therapeutic option for patients with health conditions such as atrial fibrillation, venous thrombosis, artificial heart valves and pulmonary embolus, which are associated with excess clotting risk that may cause adverse outcomes, including stroke and death. However, warfarin therapy is fraught with risk and liability. The drug interacts with food and many drugs and requires careful monitoring of the prothrombin time (PT) and international normalized ratio (INR).

Recently, when I applied for credentialing as solo practioner, I was asked by my medical malpractice insurer to detail my protocol for monitoring patients on anticoagulation therapy with warfarin. When I worked in group practice at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta I referred my patients to Emory’s Anticoagulation Management Service (AMS), which I found to be a wonderful resource. In fact, “disease management” clinics for anticoagulation are common amongst group practices because of the significant liability issues. Protocol based therapy and dedicated management teams improve outcomes for patients on anticoagulation with warfarin. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Hospitalist*

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