Cleveland native, Dr. Saima Karim, is a cardiologist and electrophysiologist practicing at the Cleveland Metro Health Center. She attended medical school at Ohio University and did her fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. When she’s not listening to irregular beating hearts, she likes listening to harmonious symphonies at local recitals and playing outdoor sports with her son.
What’s an Electrophysiologist and What Do They Do?
Electrophysiology is a subspecialty of cardiology, which is defined as the internal medical specialty concerned with disorders of the heart. Electrophysiologists primarily focus on testing and treating problems that involve irregular heart rhythms, or what we call arrhythmias.
“It’s [an electrophysiologist] someone who specializes in arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Karim explains. She has been specializing in the atrial fibrillation study and treatment for five years already, as part of her career as an electrophysiologist in Ohio.
What’s Atrial Fibrillation?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that by 2030, around 12.3 million Americans will be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Dr. Karim explains atrial fibrillation is an irregular rhythm that originates from the heart’s left or, in some instances, from its right chamber. Atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. Additionally, the irregular rhythm occurs in brief episodes, or it may be a permanent condition.
Who Is at Risk?
There is a broad range of medical conditions that may be comorbid with atrial fibrillation.
According to Dr. Karim, individuals with existing alveolar diseases, thyroid diseases and cardiovascular diseases have a high chance of developing atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation is often experienced during acute episodes of respiratory failure, which often need to be managed (Vahdatpour et al., 2020). Dr. Karim explains that acutely or critically ill patients with thyroid problems at the hospital are likely to develop atrial fibrillation. However, so are patients who have recently undergone heart surgery. Fortunately, some studies show that this is preventable when utilizing appropriate prophylactic therapy (Maisel et al., 2001).
Other candidates for developing these conditions are patients who suffer from sleep apnea and individuals who have a previous related medical history in their family tree.
Atrial fibrillation may also occur in patients who exercise excessively. One study found that young men and joggers have an increased risk of developing the disease (Aizer et al., 2009). However, Dr. Karim reassures us that while atrial fibrillation may develop among athletes, they are less likely to get strokes compared to other patients.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Patients with Atrial Fibrillation?
Respiratory illnesses have a high chance of developing arrhythmias.
“A lot of people do develop it acutely when they’re in the hospital,” Dr. Karim says. “They may even have it at home and not know that they’re having symptoms.”
If you suspect that you may have atrial fibrillation, consider looking for these symptoms:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering, or pounding)
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
“The key is early recognition,” Dr. Karim advises. “Making sure that we recognize the symptoms earlier, [and] try to address any risk of stroke that there is. It’s very important.”
The Future of Atrial Fibrillation Management
Dr. Karim was excited to share with Top Doctor Magazine the latest innovations in the management of atrial fibrillation.
“What used to happen a lot of times when people had atrial fibrillation, we just used to control their rates and observe them and how they did over time,” Dr. Karim said. “But more and more literature is coming out [regarding] treating patients that are symptomatic with atrial fibrillation earlier in life, [which] prevents them from having problems.”
She explains that the latest technology can now eliminate atrial fibrillation, which has been beneficial for patients. Dr. Karim has mentioned atrial fibrillation ablation to be “reasonably good” and “successful, (…) especially in monitoring patients over the long term”. The treatment uses minor burns or freezes to cause some scarring on the inside of the heart to help break up the electrical signals that cause irregular heartbeats.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The future of atrial fibrillation management and prevention has seen promising research and technological advancement.
“The technology is evolving and we’re developing newer tools,” Dr. Karim said excitedly. “Compared to a decade ago, there has been a huge technological change. I predict that ten years from now, it’s going to look entirely different again.”
Current medical research and development have changed radically in the field of atrial fibrillation. With these new advancements, Dr. Karim is hopeful that the new treatments will address atrial fibrillation head-on. She advises, though, that prevention is still better than cure. Having a healthy balanced diet, quitting tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight and a moderate amount of exercise are the best ways to prevent atrial fibrillation from occurring early in your lifetime.