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Cardiovascular Health 2019

A simple pulse check could save your life

iStock / Getty Images Plus / mheim3011

Trudie Lobban MBE

Founder and CEO, Arrythmia Alliance

A pulse check is an effective way of detecting atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder and the leading cause of stroke. It’s time more of us learned how to do it.

Many of us are aware of our heart rate, says Trudie Lobban MBE, Founder & CEO of Arrythmia Alliance, a coalition of charities, patient groups, patients, carers, healthcare professionals, medical groups and allied professionals working to promote timely and effective diagnosis and treatment of arrhythmias.

But to make sure we are not at risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) — the most common arrhythmia (or heart rhythm disorder) and the leading cause of stroke — it’s also crucial we are aware of our heart rhythm.

No expensive equipment or complicated technology is needed to do this (although medically approved apps are available). In fact, it can be done with a simple pulse check.

Get to know the rhythm of your pulse

“Many people don’t connect their pulse with their heart,” says Lobban. “Yet, by taking our pulse we can check our heart rhythm, which can detect AF. That’s why our message is: ‘Know your pulse to know your heart rhythm’.”

Some people say AF feels as though they have a bag of worms in their chest — or drums beating in their chest.

Lobban advises feeling your pulse when you’re sitting down and relaxed (“not after drinking a cup of coffee or running a marathon”) and getting to know its normal rhythm (not to be confused with the beat).

If you feel that it’s jumping around, going too slow, too fast or is irregular, then see your doctor. This is important because, when the heart rhythm is irregular, clots can form in the blood, which may break off and cause heart failure, or travel to the brain and cause an AF-related stroke.

Recognise the symptoms of atrial fibrillation

“If you have AF, you are five times more likely to have an AF-related stroke, which can often prove to be fatal — or they can be more disabling and debilitating than any other type of stroke,” says Lobban.

AF is a more prevalent condition than previously suspected. Worryingly, a quarter of people over the age of 40 will develop AF at some time in their lives; and at least one-third of those with AF are yet to be diagnosed.

Obesity, alcohol, smoking and stress all increase risk of atrial fibrillation, the symptoms of which may include breathlessness and/or palpitations.

“Some people say AF feels as though they have a bag of worms in their chest — or drums beating in their chest,” says Lobban. “But it is possible to have AF and experience no symptoms at all.”

Detect, protect, correct and perfect

If your GP diagnoses AF, you will be given anti-coagulation therapy. “There are several types available, which will help reduce the risk of a clot forming,” explains Lobban. “This type of therapy does not treat AF, however, so you should also discuss treatment options with your doctor.

“There are lots of treatments available to reduce symptoms of AF, and potentially cure it.” These include drug therapy or ablation therapy (where a catheter is placed into the heart to detect and ablate the area causing the abnormal rhythm).

Lobban also asks those at risk of AF to remember a simple slogan: ‘Detect, protect, correct and perfect’. “Detect AF with a simple pulse check; protect against AF-related stroke with anti-coagulation therapy; correct an irregular heart rhythm with access to appropriate treatment,” she says. “Finally, perfect the patient care pathway, restoring the patient back to a person leading as active a life as possible.”

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