MEDICAL MATTERS: Atrial fibrillation without blood thinners is possible

By Fernando Boccalandro, M.D.

Atrial fibrillation is a rhythm disorder affecting more than five million patients in our country, with an increasing frequency as our population ages. When in atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals of the heart are disorganized resulting in a fast and irregular rhythm, causing the upper chambers of the heart (or atrium) to quiver instead of contract, and therefore the name of atrial fibrillation.

Because the heartbeats are no longer in synchrony, uneven amounts of blood are pumped out of the heart with each heartbeat causing symptoms such as chest fluttering (or palpitations), shortness of breath, and easy fatigability among others.  The inability of the upper chambers to circulate the blood properly within the heart can cause the blood to — sit and clot — within the heart, with the ensuing risk of traveling to other organs like the brain, resulting in catastrophic events such as strokes.

Patients with atrial fibrillations, which are at high risk for stroke, are treated lifetime with blood thinners, which efficiently prevent these clots to form. The vast majority of clots are formed within a small pocket in the left upper chamber of the heart called the left atrial appendage.

At Medical Center Health System, our team from the ProCare Odessa Heart Institute has successfully pioneered a procedure in the Permian Basin called the ‘left atrial appendage closure,’ using a minimally invasive technique with an FDA approved device called ‘Watchman.’ It usually requires only an overnight stay or less in the hospital, which can eliminate the need for long-term use of blood thinners.

This major advancement in the treatment of atrial fibrillation is available at Medical Center Hospital for appropriate candidates, bringing a novel approach to decrease stroke risk without a lifetime commitment to blood thinners.