Tallahassee heart rhythm disorder specialist talks Watt diagnosis
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - In a press conference after beating the Carolina Panthers 26-16 Sunday, Arizona Cardinals star defensive end JJ Watt emotionally discussed the impending birth of his son and his diagnosis of atrial fibrillation.
The 33-year-old Watt was diagnosed with the rhythm disorder on Wednesday and had his heart “shocked back into rhythm” Thursday, he confirmed in a Tweet before playing in the Cardinals game on Sunday.
Atrial fibrillation is a rhythm disorder of the top chambers of the heart and Tallahassee Memorial Hospital electrophysiologist Dr. Venkata Bavikati said the condition causes the top chamber of the heart to “quiver extremely fast” and throws off the “synchrony” of a person’s heartbeat.
“That can lead to the bottom chambers quivering fast and that may lead to a fluttering sensation, a pounding sensation, some patients describe it as a fish flopping in their chest,” Bavikati said. “Sometimes it can present shortness of breath or chest pains.”
Bavikati said symptoms like fatigue and tiredness from the usual mundane activity is something to also be on the lookout for.
“Some patients will present signs of heart failure, swelling in their legs, shortness of breathe,” Bavikati said.
Bavikati said the condition usually develops in patients between the ages of 50 and 60 and said it comes from underlying pathological processes in the electrical system of the top chamber.
“There’s scar tissue, fibrosis or some kind of trigger which is putting the heart into atrial fibrillation,” Bavikati said.
While Watt’s underlying medical issues have not been disclosed, Bavikati said there are multiple risk factors like high blood pressure diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol use, too much caffeine use, and underlying heart issues like heart failure, vulvar disorders or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that can also lead to atrial fibrillation.
Bavikati said there are roughly 5 million people in the US who have atrial fibrillation and it’s one of the more common rhythm disorders that is encountered in the medical profession and is one of the most common causes of stroke for patients with the condition.
In fact, Bavikati said that left untreated AFib increases the risk of stroke five-fold.
“When someone that young develops AFib, then we have to look for underlying triggering factors like a thyroid issue, or untreated sleep apnea, or they’re obese, their lifestyle--they may be drinking too much alcohol,” Bavikati said.
Bavikati said it can also be linked to underlying structural issues of the heart, like thicker heart muscles that make it harder for the body to pump blood.
However, Bavikati said that AFib does not cause symptoms in everyone, and for older individuals, they can be presented with a stroke or heart failure as the “first manifestation” of the condition.
“Based on studies over the last few years the treatment is trying to keep someone in rhythm to keep them from developing strokes, heart failure or potentially help them live longer,” Bavikati said.
In order to get a patient’s heart back into rhythm, Bavikati recommends antiarrhythmic medications or a procedure like an ablation that freezes areas of the top chamber of the heart to improve a patient’s chance of their heartbeat staying in rhythm.
Bavikati said that the condition is very uncommon in teens and young adults.
“In those cases we can usually identify some kind of lifestyle change or lifestyle factor that is being very obese, having untreated sleep apnea, sometimes we diagnose them with a thyroid problem which was undiagnosed previously,” Bavikati said.
Patients that don’t present underlying structural heart issues like a valvular disease, Bavikati said, are described as having “lonely atrial fibrillation.”
However, Bavikati said “super athletes” like Watt can develop the condition by putting “extreme stress on the heart.”
“If you feel like you have these symptoms I would highly encourage you to reach out to your primary care doctor,” Bavikati said. “Have them do an EKG, have them put a monitor on you.”
Watt said his heart was “shocked back into rhythm” ahead of Sunday’s game through a process called cardioversion, electrically shocking the heart back into normal rhythm.
“The patient is completely asleep under anesthesia, we put pads on their front and back and we do anywhere from 100 to 200 to 300 joules to get the heart back to normal rhythm,” Bavikati said.
Bavikati said patients’ long-term risk factors need to be reassessed following a cardioversion “to make sure they remain candidates for blood thinners” and to “ensure that they’re maintaining a normal rhythm.”
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