You might associate skipping a heartbeat or two with romantic feelings, but if your heart skips beats, quivers or flutters (or is irregular in any way) frequently, it could be a sign of a serious heart condition known as arrhythmia. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
Burden of atrial fibrillation and prevention
In fact, the AHA notes that 15-20 percent of people who suffer from strokes have atrial fibrillation, making it a heart rhythm disorder that nobody should take lightly. A study published in the Journal of the Practice of Cardiovascular Sciences in 2015 indicated that while proper epidemiological data to determine the prevalence of atrial fibrillation in India is not known, the burden of this heart disease is quite high and likely to continue rising, owing to an increase in the elderly population in the country.
Irregular heartbeat, palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness are common symptoms of atrial fibrillation, and the condition is diagnosed via an ECG or EKG. The current treatment options for those diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, as per the AHA, include adopting various mechanisms to restore the normal rhythm of the heart, reduce high heart rates and risk of stroke, prevent blood clots, and ultimately prevent heart failure. Medications like beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers may be provided to mitigate the risks of stroke, while a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise are the lifestyle strategies one has to adopt.
Yoga for atrial fibrillation patients
And it's in the realm of treatment and prevention of atrial fibrillation that recent research presented at the European Society of Cardiology may play a huge role. The study, led by Dr Naresh Sen of the Hridaya Ganesha SMS Hospital in Jaipur indicates that practising yoga asanas and breathing exercises can help patients with atrial fibrillation manage their symptoms better.
The study included 538 patients between 2012 and 2017 and had two study periods. During the first study period which lasted 12 weeks, the patients did not do any yoga asanas at all. In the second study period, which lasted 16 weeks, the participants attended 30-minute yoga sessions every day and were also told to practice the asanas and breathing exercises at home too.
The patients were told to record their symptoms as well as episodes of atrial fibrillation in a diary during both study periods. Some patients also wore heart monitors to identify when their atrial fibrillation episodes occurred as well as their extent. Their heart rates and blood pressure was also recorded frequently. Anxiety and depression surveys were also conducted to assess their social anxieties, mobility, mood and energy levels.
Once they compared the records of both study periods, the researchers found that the patients observed significant improvements in all areas of research mentioned above during the 16-week yoga period. During the 12-week non-yoga period, the patients experienced an average of 15 atrial fibrillation episodes, while in the yoga period, they experienced an average of just eight episodes. Even the average blood pressure levels decreased significantly after each yoga session.
This clearly indicates that yoga asanas and breathing exercises are some of the most effective, non-surgical lifestyle strategies to manage the symptoms of atrial fibrillation and potentially also mitigate the risks of strokes as well as other heart-related complications. The benefits of yoga for these patients is not just in helping them manage the symptoms but also to improve their mental health, which is a well-rounded way of addressing this chronic heart condition and its lifelong implications.
For more information, read our article on Yoga and yogasana.
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