Study looks at stroke risk after surgery

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- What doctors once thought was a temporary heart condition could have long-lasting effects that lead to a stroke.

“Atrial fibrillation is a very common heart rhythm disorder,” said Dr. Wilber Su with Banner Health's Cavanagh Heart Clinic.

Patients with atrial fibrillation could have the upper chamber of their heart racing at 400 to 600 beats per minute.

And Su said atrial fibrillation is something doctors very often see in patients who go in for any type of surgery.

“What we always suspected in the past was that the patients that come in for surgery completely non-related to the heart can have episodes of atrial fibrillation," he said.

It was long thought those episodes of atrial fibrillation were brought on by the stress of surgery.

“And in the past we thought, 'OK, well, if it passed by, then it's probably OK. It may not happen again," Su said.

But a new study shows that might not be the case, and Su says it uncovers what may be a significant problem.

”I think it does really stress the underlying fact that often that is just the tip of the iceberg,“ he said.

And in fact, that study found that patients who experienced one or more episodes of a-fib after surgery had a striking increase in their risk of having a future stroke -- a 30 percent increase after cardiovascular surgery and double the risk after other types.

“So it's absolutely critical we follow the patient closely,” Su said. “Is this something that can come back easily? Is this something happening to a patient with a high risk of stroke?“

Su says it is important to note that this will be a one-time episode for some people, and the study should not scare people but rather make them aware that it is critical for doctors to document and follow up, especially when patients have risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes.

“Because that is when we can intervene and prevent a stroke,” Su said.

And there are a number of non-invasive methods to get the heart rhythm back to normal.