A stroke is a brain attack – it happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. The impact of a stroke can transform a person’s life – many people will be left with a long-term disability, which could affect their ability to walk or talk or return to work.

Stroke strikes in an instant and can affect anyone at any time with devastating consequences. In 2016, 38,000 people in the UK died of a stroke – that’s more than the entire population of Exmouth – and stroke killed twice as many women than breast cancer. Not only does stroke kill but it is the leading cause of disability – of everyone who has a stroke, almost two thirds leave hospital with a disability.

But all of this can be avoided. Nine out of ten strokes are preventable. One way to prevent strokes is through better diagnosis and treatment of atrial fibrillation (AF).

 

What is atrial fibrillation (AF)?

 

AF is an irregular heartbeat. If you have AF, your heart may beat abnormally fast. More than one million people in the UK have AF and their risk of a stroke is five times greater than someone without AF. 

AF increases your risk of stroke because your heart is not pumping blood as well as it should, which may mean that blood collects inside the heart and a blood clot may form. There is a risk that this clot could then travel through your body to your brain. If the clot blocks one of the arteries leading to your brain, it could cause a stroke 

 

Signs and Symptoms of AF

 

Some common symptoms of AF are:

  • palpitations (being aware of your heart beating fast)
     
  • breathlessness
     
  • chest pain
     
  • fatigue

However, some people do not have any symptoms and AF is often only diagnosed during a general medical check up.

 

What causes AF

 

Some medical conditions increase your chances of developing AF. These include heart problems, such as coronary heart disease, or disease of your heart’s valves. It can also be caused by other conditions including an overactive thyroid gland, high blood pressure, lung infections like pneumonia, or a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism).

Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, taking illegal drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines and smoking can all trigger an episode of AF.

 

What to do if you think you have AF

 

AF is a manageable condition - If you think you may have AF it is important to talk to your GP. Your GP will check your pulse and they may refer you for further tests. If AF is diagnosed it can be treated, which will reduce your risk of stroke

The main treatment to reduce your stroke risk is blood thinning medication (anticoagulants). It's important that you discuss all options with your GP, to make sure you receive the best treatment possible to reduce your risk of stroke. Aspirin monotherapy (being treated just with aspirin) is no longer recommended to reduce your risk of stroke.

 

What more needs to be done

 

We know that in the UK it is estimated that half a million people could have AF and not know about it. And that’s not all – we know that less than half of UK patients with known AF are on anticoagulant medication when they go to the hospital with a stroke.

With better diagnosis and treatment of AF, we could stop around 7,000 strokes and save over 2,000 lives every year in England alone. That’s why we’re urging all clinical commissioning groups to use the NHS Right Care prevention pathway to help identify and treat people with AF.