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The Risk is Real

But fear of stroke doesn't have to rule your life.
"I'm more free to do the things I really enjoy."
Bill Moates, WATCHMAN recipient

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Risk

The risk is real. But fear of stroke doesn’t have to rule your life. Understand the link between atrial fibrillation and stroke, learn about preventing a stroke, and find out what you can do to reduce your stroke risk, below.

AFib increases your risk of stroke by five times

Why AF increases your risk of stroke

The average person with atrial fibrillation, or AF, is 5 times more likely to suffer a stroke than someone with a regular heartbeat.1 Here’s why AF stroke risk is so high:

In AF, the upper heart chambers quiver and shake and do not contract, or squeeze, as they should.2 Because blood isn’t pumped out of the heart normally, it’s easier for blood cells to stick together and form clots in an area of the heart called the left atrial appendage.2,3

In people with atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve problem (also called non-valvular AF), more than 90% of stroke-causing clots that come from the heart are formed in the left atrial appendage.3 When a blood clot escapes from the left atrial appendage and travels to another part of the body, it can cut off the blood supply to the brain, causing a stroke.1,4

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

If you’re looking to learn the basics about AF, including valvular AF vs non-valvular AF, AF symptoms, and how AF is diagnosed

Start here
Heart image showing disorganized electrical signals in the atria

How Does Atrial Fibrillation Cause Stroke?

To better understand the connection between AF and stroke risk, it helps to know a little about how your heart works. Your heart has an electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat. In a healthy heart, the electrical signals produce a steady heartbeat. The heart contracts and pumps blood normally.4

With AF, the electrical signals are disorganized. Atrial fibrillation happens when the top two chambers of the heart, the atria, beat rapidly and irregularly (fibrillate). AF affects how well blood pumps through parts of your heart, which in turn affects your stroke risk. But proper treatment can help reduce your risk of stroke.4

Types of Stroke

There are 2 types of stroke: ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot that lodges in a blood vessel and cuts off the blood supply to the brain. An ischemic stroke is the type of stroke most associated with the irregular heartbeat of atrial fibrillation.5,6

A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by bleeding in or around the brain. This can happen when a blood vessel in the area of the brain weakens and breaks. Blood builds and creates pressure on the brain, blocking blood flow.5,6

What Causes a Stroke?

Anyone can have a stroke regardless of age, race, or gender. But the chances of having a stroke are higher if you have certain stroke risk factors. Here are some of them5,6:

  • Atrial fibrillation
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Carotid artery disease
  • High cholesterol

Stroke Warning Signs

Signs of a stroke may include the sudden onset of any of these symptoms5:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Severe headache with no known cause

A stroke is an emergency situation. Quickly receiving medical assistance can help limit further damage, improve outcomes and recovery.

Management of Stroke

When a stroke happens, time is critical. Getting treatment right away can help reduce the effects of a stroke and may even prevent death. The gold standard for treating ischemic stroke (the kind caused by a blood clot) is a solution called tissue plasminogen activator. It’s administered through an IV in the arm, but it must be given within 3 hours of having the stroke.5

The effects of a stroke depend on where the blockage occurs in the brain and how much of the brain is damaged. These effects can include5:

  • Paralysis
  • Vision or speech problems
  • Behavioral changes 
  • Memory loss

People who suffer a stroke often enter a rehabilitation program. Rehab can help those affected by stroke regain certain functions or learn how to live within their abilities.

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Facts

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Facts

AF currently affects more than 6 million Europeans and is projected to increase as population ages.1 People with AF have five times the risk of stroke than those with normal heart rhythm.2 50% of AF-related strokes occur under age of 75.3

Reducing Your Risk of Stroke With AF

The good news is that the risk of stroke can be managed. There are different treatments available to reduce stroke risk if you have atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve problem (or non-valvular AF). The most common way is with medications that prevent blood clots from forming and leading to a stroke.

These medications, called anticoagulants or blood thinners, work well for many people. Warfarin (Coumadin®) and novel oral anticoagulants (NOACs) are examples of common blood thinner.1

Warfarin and NOACs effectively reduce the risk of cardioembolic stroke, however they are not well tolerated by some patients and carry a risk for bleeding complications. For these people, the Left Atrial Appendage Closure procedure may be an option. The WATCHMAN device offers a breakthrough approach to reduce the risk of stroke. Most blood clots in people with AF develop in the left atrial appendage (LAA). WATCHMAN acts as a barrier to keep these blood clots from escaping the LAA, going into the bloodstream, blocking a blood vessel, and causing a stroke.

Your doctor will help you choose a treatment to reduce your stroke risk based on your heart’s rhythm, your symptoms, and any other conditions you may have.

Preventing a Stroke

Management of stroke risk is a main goal of AF treatment. But there are a number of other things you can do to help reduce your overall stroke risk:5

  • If you smoke, try to quit 
  • Get regular physical activity (ask your doctor what is safe for you) 
  • Eat a diet that is low in fat and salt 
  • Maintain a healthy weight 

You may not be able to change the fact that you have atrial fibrillation, and the risk of stroke that comes with it. But these healthy choices can have a positive effect on other health conditions, like high blood pressure, that further increase your stroke risk.5

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you have atrial fibrillation and you’re concerned about your stroke risk, here are some questions to ask your cardiologist: 

  • What is my risk of having a stroke?
  • What do I need to know in the event of a stroke?
  • What treatment options can help reduce my stroke risk?
  • Do I need a blood thinner and, if so, what kind?
  • What are the alternatives to blood thinners?
  • What are the risks and benefits of these treatment options?
  • Are there lifestyle changes I can make to help reduce my stroke risk? 

If you need an alternative to blood thinner medications to reduce your stroke risk due to AF, find out if the WATCHMAN Implant could be right for you. 

Answer a few questions and get a customized guide

Oral Anticoagulants are prescribed to reduce the risk of stroke in people with AF – but it may not be right for everyone.1 Learn about other treatment options, like the WATCHMAN Implant.

Go To: Alternative to Warfarin

WATCHMAN is for people with atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve problem who need an alternative to oral anticoagulants. This website is intended to provide patients and caregivers with some information about the WATCHMAN Implant. It may help prepare you for talking to your doctor about your options for reducing stroke risk.

CAUTION: The law restricts these devices to sale by or on the order of a physician. Indications, contraindications, warnings and instructions for use can be found in the product labeling supplied with each device. Information for the use only in countries with applicable health authority product registrations.

Content of this website is for Information Purposes only and not meant for product promotion or medical diagnostic. This information does not constitute medical or legal advice, and BSC makes no representation or warranty regarding this information or its completeness, accuracy or timeliness.

Accordingly, BSC strongly recommends that you consult with your physician on all matters pertaining to your health or to address any questions.

References

  1. National Stroke Association. Making the Afib-Stroke Connection. 
  2. Harvard Health Publications. Atrial fibrillation. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/atrial-fibrillation-common-serious-treatable. Harvard University Medical School. Published November 2011. Accessed August 25, 2016. 
  3. Blackshear JL, Odell JA. Appendage obliteration to reduce stroke in cardiac surgical patients with atrial fibrillation. Ann Thorac Surg. 1996;61:755-759. 
  4. Cleveland Clinic. Atrial fibrillation (Afib). http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/disorders/arrhythmia/atrial-fibrillation-afib. Published May 2015. Accessed August 25, 2016. American Stroke Association website. http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/. 
  5. American Heart Association. Published 2017. Accessed May 31, 2017. 
  6. National Stroke Association website. http://www.stroke.org/. Published 2017. Accessed May 31, 2017. 
  7. Lamassa et al., Characteristics, Outcome, and Care of Stroke Associated With Atrial Fibrillation in Europe Data From a Multicenter Multinational Hospital–Based Registry (The European Community Stroke Project). Stroke 32.2 (2001): 392-398.