Cycling and AF Blog

John’s Bike

I’d like to recommend that readers of this blog take some time to check out the Cycling and AF Blog , if you haven’t already done so.

In this easy to read blog, with generally short entries, you’ll read of the personal journey of a middle aged road cyclist /club rider from England.

His atrial fibrillation (AF) began with some vague  symptoms in 2015, eventually diagnosed as AF. Follow his personal journey dealing with alcohol, coffee, diminished cycling performance, beta blockers (and other AF drugs), two ablations (!) and an Atricip procedure.

I think readers of this blog will find his journey interesting. Based in England the healthcare system is different, as are some names – a TEE (trans-esophageal echocardiogram), for example, is a TOE (trans-oesophageal echocardiogram).

I would certainly like to learn about the Atriclip procedure – I’ll research that and post about it in the future.

Speaking of alcohol – I’m planning my next blog post to be about alcohol and AF.

I hope you enjoy the Cycling and AF Blog as much as I did.

This is me, in AF, riding around Crater Lake

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Endurance Sports and Atrial Fibrillation – WHY?

Endurance Sports and Atrial Fibrillation – WHY?

starting a long run on the local PCT. We saw a bear that day – fun.

Exercise is supposed to be good for you, good for your heart, right? Then why is that endurance athletes have two to ten times the rate of developing atrial fibrillation compared to “normal” people? Is a little or moderate exercise good but excessive exercise bad? As an endurance athlete (marathons, trail running, long distance mountain and road biking) who has permanent atrial fibrillation (AF) I would certainly like to understand “WHY?”

There is a terrific article on Europace entitled Endurance Sport Practice as a Risk Factor for Atrial Fibrillation and Atrial Flutter . By internet standards it’s a long read but I will review it here.

The studies aren’t large, and male athletes predominate – but it is clear that endurance athletes have, as mentioned above – 2 to 10 times the likelihood of developing AF. It is not actually known why but it is thought that ectopic atrial beats, chronic inflammation, and larger atrial size are all risk factors.

Personally – the story checks out – I started having runs of “premature atrial contractions” years before ever going into AF, and because endurance athletes train more frequently and tend to avoid rest the atria are chronically inflamed, which leads to fibrosis (scarring) of the atrial muscle. And of course my left atrium has been severely enlarged for decades – not as much because of sports but because I had previously had mitral regurgitation (repaired surgically 1994 but the atrium never shrunk back to normal).

But even without the mitral valve issues endurance athletes tend to have enlarged atria. And we don’t rest enough leading to inflammation and scarring. The Europace article cites several studies that link long term endurance sports with AF, compared to sedentary individuals.

Moderate exercise may actually protect against AF.

Ringo after a long run – Fremont Trail

The Europace article also cites studies that show a correlation with “occupational physical activity” and AF – meaning people that have difficult, physically demanding jobs are also in the same boat as endurance athletes.

I didn’t know this – there is also a higher rate of AF related to how tall a person is – damn! I’m 6’3” (or 6’4” – depending on what year was measured.)

The article discusses, speculates, as to the mechanism of AF in the athlete’s heart but much of this is a bit technical for this blog. Feel free to explore the article if you are curious.

The typical clinical profile of sport-related AF or atrial flutter is a middle-aged man (in his forties or fifties) who has been involved in regular endurance sport practice since his youth (soccer, cycling, jogging, and swimming), and is still active. This physical activity is his favourite leisure time activity and he is psychologically very dependent on it. 

Interestingly the AF rarely occurs during running:

They almost never occur during exercise. This makes the patient reluctant to accept a relationship between the arrhythmia and sport practice, particularly since his physical condition is usually very good. The crises typically become more frequent and prolonged over the years and AF becomes persistent. Progression to permanent AF has been described by Hoogsteen et al .

Again, for me, the story checks out. I certainly recall long episodes of palpitations at rest that I now can identify as AF – until the day when it became (dreaded) permanent AF!

The article suggests that abstinence from sports is helpful for athletes having episodes of AF, although it isn’t curative. The problem, as any endureance athletes knows, is that it is nearly impossible to get us to give up our long runs, bike rides, etc.

Other therapeutic measures are also discussed – but that is a talk that is best left to the runner and the cardiologist.

Although ablation seems to be quite effective, endurance sport cessation associated with drug therapy seems to us a more suitable approach as an initial therapy, particularly in non-professional, veteran athletes.

To conclude I’m just going to quote their conclusions right here:

Vigorous physical activity, whether related to long-term endurance sport practice or to occupational activities, seems to increase the risk for recurrent AF. The underlying mechanisms remain to be elucidated, although structural atrial changes (dilatation and fibrosis) are probably present. There is a relationship between accumulated hours of practice and AF risk. Further studies are needed to clarify whether a threshold limit for the intensity and duration of physical activity may prevent AF, without limiting the cardiovascular benefits of exercise.

I’d be interested in others opinions and experiences with these issues. Reading this article was a little emotional for me – like I said – the story checks out! I guess that if I knew what I know now I might have cut down a little on the endurance sports before I was forced to do so by permanent AF. Truly, for me, a day long run with my dog, on a trail, in a local wilderness area was the most enjoyable thing I can imagine. And at this point it isn’t even the AF preventing me from still doing it – it’s the  high dose of beta blocker I take for rate control – really takes the wind out of my sails.

 

 

“C’mon Boss, let’s go for a trail run!”

Re A-Fib: 5 Things I’ve Learned in 10 years… A Guest Post by David Grayson Lees

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I’m a 64 year-old road/trail runner, marathoner and weight lifter diagnosed with atrial fibrillation more than a decade ago. I’ve had three ablations and as many cardioversions, plus I’ve swallowed the usual assortment of prescription meds. Now my a-fib has become paroxysmal atrial flutter—about one episode every two weeks or so, usually lasting a few hours—and while my running days seem to be over, I still regularly make it to the gym and I’m discovering the joys of walking and hiking.

Through trial and error—plenty of each, actually—as well as a fair amount of research, I’ve come to a handful of conclusions that may be useful. While I believe them to be true, keep in mind that my observations are true for me; your experience may well be different. Finally, since I’m not a physician, nothing here is intended as medical advice.

And now: 5 things I’ve learned in 10 years of dealing with the always-entertaining world of cardiac arrhythmia.

A-Fib won’t kill you…even though a diagnosis of a-fib—and its symptoms—can be very scary, barring underlying cardiac disease, a-fib is not inherently life-threatening. And so if you have just been diagnosed, relax as best you can.

…but a stroke could. Pay rigorous attention to your anti-coagulation regimen. Even if your CHAD score is zero, at least take a low-dose aspirin every day. Personally, I find Coumadin to be a true pain, what with blood monitoring, dietary restrictions and the like. I much prefer the newer meds, especially Xarelto. It acts quickly, and as an added bonus you don’t have to be continuously concerned with your INR numbers.

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Your EP isn’t interested in prevention. Typically, EP’s are all about fixing stuff rather than prevention. Which is weird, because unless you’re on the younger side of 40 and/or your a-fib has been freshly discovered, one ablation usually won’t do the trick. Of course, I’m grateful to my two EP’s, one rated among the best in California and the other acknowledged as one of the best in the world. It’s just that neither one has ever expressed any interest in the contours of my life, including what my exercise habits happen to be, what sorts of supplements I take, or what my days are like. Now, I’m not looking for a new best friend, but it’s clear that for them I’m a unique problem to be solved rather than a unique human being. I’m not angry about it; after all, these docs chose a field in which their major interaction with patients occurs when the patient is unconscious.

Still, I believe the implication is clear: you are pretty much on your own when it comes to figuring out how to modify your life style, exploring vitamin/mineral supplementation, and gathering the latest non-nutsy information.

(BTW, in terms of info, two websites I recommend are Dr. John Madrola and The A-Fib Report. Dr. John is a younger EP who always has a thought provoking take on new developments in a-f treatment and research and The A-Fib Report is a readable compendium of international a-f research, written in lay language. It requires a nominal membership fee that’s well worth it.)

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Supplementation could work for you. I haven’t thrown out my beta blocker (Sotalol AF, not regular Sotalol) but along the way I have had excellent results in controlling the frequency and duration of my atrial flutter episodes by supplementing with 200 mg of magnesium citrate in a pill taken at lunch and ¼ teaspoon of potassium citrate dissolved in water taken in the morning and again at dinnertime (Please note: ingesting too much potassium involves some quite severe health risks, so be careful.)

Life is good. But first, the bad news: as near as I can tell, nobody knows what causes atrial flutter. The gang of suspects spans endurance sports (!) to mysterious biochemical mechanisms that somehow encourage the formation of tissue substrates that make the electrical system of the heart go haywire. Researchers—and your EP, too–are just guessing, leaning on statistical correlations rather than employing demonstrable causal connections. Maybe cutting out caffeine will help you; maybe it won’t. Maybe abstaining from demon rum will prove to be the answer; maybe not. Obviously, if you are over-drinking, over stressing (like many of us who are into enduro sports) under sleeping or happen to be engaged in other deleterious deeds, changing your behavior is simply a good idea, a-fib or no a-fib. Just don’t expect that any one thing will be the answer.

The good news is, you can have a great life even with a-fib and a-flutter. No, I don’t love my a-flutter episodes; they are annoying and sometimes, even after a decade, still frightening. I don’t run anymore, but a long walk or a moderate—I know, I know, not my favorite word, either—hike turns out to be a lot of fun. No, I can’t put the same hemodynamic load on my heart that I used to, but I can still work up a nice funky sweat underneath the weight machines at the gym.

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Besides, working out is only a part of life. My friendships, relationship with my son, work, and my love life (I’m getting married again, and I’m stoked!) are just as satisfying as ever.

Maybe more so.

Those of us with a-fib or a-flutter aren’t sick, not truly. Nor do we need to afraid.

So—live!

(Thanks to Linda for the inspiration. Thanks to you for reading.)

Update: Atrial Fibrillation, Pradaxa Fail, Transient Ischemic Episode, Blood Clot in Left Atrial Appendage

Ridgeview Trail - Moore Park

Ridgeview Trail – Moore Park

About two weeks ago I was out for my typical Saturday two hour trail run on Moore Mountain with my dogs. It was a fine day and I felt great, and with about ten minutes left in the run I ran into three of my friends who were out mountain biking. My friend Linda, a Physician Assistant, was trying out her fancy new mountain bike and we stopped to talk for a while. She showed me her new bike and I introduced her to my new dog. I noticed, and commented, that I was having a little trouble getting my mouth working properly. I didn’t have any trouble finding words, or even saying the words, but my tongue just felt sort of thick – especially with consonants like “R” that seem to be made in the back of the mouth. I immediately did my self inventory for asymmetry and muscle weakness and found none. I attributed it to having had one of those little, annoying white sores in my mouth, accompanied by some swollen glands and thought nothing of it.

Linda Cyclecross racing

Linda Cyclecross racing

I finished my run, which involved a fairly technical descent, ate my post-run Clif Bar, and went home where I noticed nothing amiss. I forgot about it until Linda texted me the following day asking how I was doing and saying she was worried about me. I assured her – I was fine!

The next Monday, at work, I thought I’d ask my friend and co-worker, Dr Zakir Ali, if he thought the incident was any reason for concern. Dr Ali is a neurologist who works a couple of days a week at the orthopedic clinic, where I work as a podiatrist.

He wasn’t as dismissive as I was about the incident and said that that was very suspicious for a TIE (transient ischemic episode). A TIE is basically a small, brief stroke, in this case likely caused by a small blood clot that resolves fairly quickly. Dr Ali said I should, at the very least, get an echocardiogram to see if there is a clot in my left atrium, and possibly a carotid artery scan as well.

I have been in permanent atrial fibrillation and on Pradaxa, a potent anticoagulant (blood thinner) for two years and had never missed a dose. I thought he may have been over reacting – and I had had an echocardiogram just two months ago.

But Dr Ali had told me, “You will never regret checking.”

And I agreed.

Okay.

mooremtnnaturscape

So I called the on call cardiologist, explained what had happened, and he told me a standard echocardiogram would be useless as it won’t show a clot, and recommended a trans-esophageal echocardiogram, and also a carotid scan (ultrasound).

I mentioned that I had had a trans-esophageal echocardiogram before (in 1994!) and it was like swallowing a telephone. He said he’d get anesthesia involved and we set up both procedures not expecting to find anything.

So the carotid scan came first and was normal, as expected.

Last Wednesday I went to the hospital and checked in to Day Surgery – which was a peculiar and strange experience for me. I’ve been working there, as a surgeon, for the past twenty-five years, but this was my first time being there as a patient. It’s a little disorienting, and oddly embarrassing, to be on “the other side of the door.”

Anyway – Dr Vince Herr, the anesthesiologist, gave me some propofol so I don’t remember a thing; but when I woke up I was told that I had a small clot in my left atrial appendage, and turbulence in my left atrium as well. This was a surprise for everybody involved. Judging from my lab work and the bruises on my arms the Pradaxa seemed to be working – but evidently not well enough! And that “small clot” looked pretty big to me – downright dangerous.

Trail Running on the PCT

Trail Running on the PCT

At that point I was immediately started on Lovenox injections twice daily (for six weeks!), the Pradaxa was discontinued, and I am beginning to take warfarin (Coumadin); and of course I stay on the beta blocker (carvedilol). My cardiologist gave me the first Lovenox injection right in the post-op area.

Also it looks like no running or bicycling for six weeks – which of course is devastating to me, emotionally, but – shit! – blood clot / stroke / potential death – yes, I am definitely sticking with the program!

The injections are easy to do, they burn a bit but don’t really hurt, and every injection leaves a bruise. Believe it or not I enjoy and look forward to each injection because I’m hopeful that they will be helpful.

pradaxasmall

I’m disappointed that the Pradaxa failed – it is much easier to take that warfarin. Remember that I am a vegetarian and one of my passions is eating healthy food, especially kale. Also everyday, up until now, I eat a little square of nori (seaweed – like the wrapper on sushi) thinking that it would be a good source of iodine as I don’t eat any seafood or use table salt. Kale and nori are probably the two worst foods to eat if you’re taking warfarin!

Taking warfarin is going to be a real challenge – changes will be made, changes that actually seem sort of unhealthy. The one advantage is that warfarin is, unlike Pradaxa, reversible, which is a true benefit in the case of a bike or auto crash, a GI bleed, a head injury, and so on.

Moore Park Trails

Moore Park Trails

In six weeks the trans-esophageal echocardiogram will be repeated and hopefully the clot will be gone. If not some sort of procedure (by the electrophysiologist) is in store for me. Hopefully I will 1.) not die and 2.) get back to trail running. Until then my nerves are wracked worrying about having a major stroke!

I need to say that I feel incredibly blessed – if I hadn’t met my friends and stopped to chat I never would have known I was having a TIE. And if Linda hadn’t have texted me the next day I wouldn’t have ever pursued it, because I had, in my mind, completely dismissed it. And also – how many people actually have a neurologist right in their office who is willing to talk at any time?

Clearly I’m not through this yet – but in a way I feel I have already dodged a bullet. Really, if it weren’t for Linda that blood clot would have just kept getting bigger and who knows what would happen next? I might be dead by now. Even as it is now – who knows? But at least now I know I have a problem and the treatment plan has been changed.

So thanks, Linda!

Me and Linda in Costa Rica

Me and Linda in Costa Rica

I would appreciate any comments, especially shared experiences, you might have.

To be continued. Wish me luck.

Atrial Fibrillation, Running, and Beta Blockers Part Two

betablockers2

The last article I wrote about beta blockers was written last Summer when I was more or less just starting the beta blocker. I had noticed a decrease in performance and exercise tolerance and when I went to the cardiologist and had an echocardiogram it was determined that my rate was going up and my ejection fraction was going down – that means my heart was pumping less efficiently and was pushing out as much blood with each beat. I was put on a low dose of carvedilol (6.25 mg twice daily) and it was thought that this would allow my ejection fraction (EF) to come back up.

When I started my EF was 55%, but when I had the echocardiogram mentioned above it was down to 45%. As noted in my last beta blocker article I suffered on runs and bike rides but felt it was worth it as I anticipated improvement.

When I returned for the follow-up echocardiogram I was extremely disappointed to learn that my EF had actually gone down to 37%. Not good.

At that point I the dosage of my beta blocker (carvedilol) was titrated up from the minimum dosage to the maximum dosage (50mg twice daily).

As you might imagine between the atrial fibrillation, the decrease in EF, and the high dose of beta blocker – running became extremely difficult. All three of these things decrease my cardiac output and, of course, that translates to poor performance. I now found I had slowed to a ludicrous pace, and honestly, running was starting to become a chore.

Running was starting to become unenjoyable; but I continued anyway.

I felt like every run was my first run after not exercising for several years, and I was walking up the most minor hills.

Last week I returned to the Heart Clinic and had yet another echocardiogram. To be honest I haven’t been feeling any better and runs still seem difficult so I decided not to even look at the screen or ask the tech about my EF as I assumed it was still poor. I’d just wait until the follow-up appointment with the cardiologist. But the tech, who knows me by now, just came out and told me – “Well, it looks like your ejection fraction is improving – it’s up to 47%.”

Well, that is good news. At least this suffering through the beta blockers is leading to some benefit.

That was just the preliminary reading, my new cardiologist (my previous cardiologist retired from clinic but still works at our hospital) interpreted the echo and said it was more like 50%!!! That’s nearly back to normal range (52-70%).

One interesting thing the cardiologist told me: she said that one would expect that people who are more athletic would have higher ejection fractions than non-athletes but in reality the opposite is often the case. I told her that my heart is so big that if my ejection fraction was too high there would be too much blood – ha ha.

hot lava

There’s something I don’t understand about echocardiograms and atrial fibrillation – as anybody who is in a fib knows some beats are better than others. It’s easy to feel that – some are short and weak and others are longer and more powerful. How, when looking at the heart with the echo machine, can you tell what kind of beat you are having?

So there is some good news. Runs are still difficult and I don’t see myself ever being completely off of the beta blocker – but hopefully a different dose in the future when my ejection fraction reaches whatever the goal value ends up being.

In my next article on running and beta blockers I will discuss “Beta Blocker Blues” and the way this unpleasant medication makes me feel fatigued and, often, quite depressed. But for now I’ll embrace the joy of knowing my ejection fraction is significantly improving and will likely get even better.

Bicycling the Rim Drive Crater Lake National Park and Atrial Fibrillation

I haven’t blogged for a while because we’ve been on vacation in Croatia for two and a half weeks, and of course after being gone for that long I’ve been incredibly busy at work. I am working on along blog entry (actually it’ll be a separate blog) about Croatia, so stay tuned.

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Me During a Brief Rest Stop

In my opinion bicycling around Crater Lake is one of the finest bike rides in the entire United States, and Crater Lake National Park will, from time to time, close of twenty-four of the thirty-three miles of the Rim Drive to allow bicyclists, hikers, and runners to have a relatively car free day. This year they had vehicle free days on two Saturdays: September 20 and 27, and I made time to be there for both days.

Since I live near Crater Lake N. P. I’ve had the opportunity to ride the rim several times, but this year was my first time doing it in permanent atrial fibrillation (and while on a beta blocker). Always a challenging ride under any circumstances, adding a fib and a beta blocker to mix changes things a bit.

Most riders start at the Steel Visitors Center (Park Headquarters) and ride clockwise. The first thing on the agenda is a three mile climb with 650 feet of elevation gain up to the Rim Village. This is actually the steepest hill along the route, but not the most difficult, in my opinion, mostly because the legs are still fresh. It is quite odd to pedal up a climb like that and find a lake at the top. There are several climbs and descents along the thirty-three mile route, and rarely is there any flat road, and the two toughest climbs, in my experience, are in the second half of the ride – the long easy climb to Cloud Cap (where most people stop to sigh and eat their Clif Bar) and the last grind up to Dutton Ridge. I might even say that you only need two gears to ride the rim – whatever you use as your easiest climbing gear and a big gear for coasting downhill.

Elevation varies from 6700 to 7700 above sea level. Personally I don’t have an issue with the elevation at Crater Lake because I’m used to living at higher elevation, but people coming from sea level might feel it.

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Bicycling in Croatia with Margo

To be honest, none of the climbs (going clockwise) are particularly steep, and there is only a total of about 3500 feet of climbing, but the climbs are so long and persistent that it seems like more. The descents can be fast and one could easily go 50 mph down the descent from Cloud Cap, but don’t. The speed limit is 35 mph and there are often surprising potholes encountered once you get up above 40 mph. The vehicle free days are great because you don’t have to worry about cars behind you. One day I was descending at 45 mph, a speed at which the wind in my ears prevents hearing anything, riding right down the middle of the lane, and was passed by a van. I thought, “What’s your hurry, bro? I’m already going 10 mph over the speed limit!”

The scenery is world class and seeing it slowly, up close on a bike, complete with the sounds and the smells is unimaginably beautiful. Being there on a vehicle free day with hundreds of bicyclists from all over Oregon is even better – there is an amazing energy in the air on the vehicle free days.

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Snowshoeing with Libo April 2013

If you are going to ride the rim, especially on a vehicle free day, keep in mind that once you are past the Visitor Center and the Rim Village (basically once you are past the first three miles) there is no water. I’m a heavy sweater so I’ll take three liters on a hot day. Actually along the last big climb there are some little “waterfalls” right along the roadside and I have seen people filling their water bottles there and it is probably fine; but it is definitely not tested and designated as potable water. Also keep in mind that there will be no SAG wagon trailing you so make sure you have the proper gear and tools for changing flat tubes and minor repairs.

As far as riding the rim in a fib while on a beta blocker, well, it is much slower. I was able to ride it but it took me at least an extra hour. I had a triple chainring on my old road bike, and I used to be able to do the entire ride in the middle chainring (except for part of the first climb); but now I am using my easiest gear for most of the climbing (my new bike has compact double, but the gearing is similar). I think I need to be happy with being able to complete the ride without falling to pieces, and quit lamenting my slower speed.

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Photo by Margo

My personal preference, now that I am in a fib, is to keep going and minimize rest stops. It seems every time I stop it’s like starting over again. On the first Saturday I was riding with a group of friends, including my wife Margo (her first time doing the rim ride) and I told them I wouldn’t be stopping much and that they could catch up to me. The last I saw them was at the top of the first climb, and I actually completed the ride a half hour or so ahead of them – they had fun, stopped at the many overlooks, stopped for lunch. I was the tortoise to their hare; slogging up the hills and only stopping a few times.

Another difference is that now that I am on an anticoagulant I brake a lot on the descents. I’m usually the biggest rider in whatever group I’m riding in and consequently the slowest climber that makes up for that by being the fastest descender. No more. Now I think about how descending slowly will help me keep my blood inside my body and I was passed by dozens of riders on each hill. As a matter of fact I kept getting passed by the same groups over and over. They’d pass me on the climb, then I’d pass them at the top of each hill where they’d stop to look at the stunning view of the lake, then they’d pass me on the descent and I’d pass them again at the bottom of the hill where they’d evidently stop to chat. Over and over – sort of fun.

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Skiing with Jan (evidently I’m relying on old photos because I only took one photo for two days of riding around Crater Lake – like I said I don’t stop enough!)

I returned and rode the Rim Drive again the following weekend as well but my friends didn’t accompany me. It was a much cooler, windier day and looked like rain, and they had other plans. I ended up doing the first half and deciding to make it an out and back. I was thinking about the big descent down the other side of Cloud Cap in the heavy wind and thought that might not be the best idea on account of my being anti-coagulated. I learned that riding the rim counter-clockwise is not as safe as riding clockwise. When riding clockwise the lake is to your right; but when riding counterclockwise there was quite often a steep drop off and no shoulder and no guard rail. The drop offs weren’t a thousand feet or anything like that but they were certainly much further than I wanted to go over on my bike so I did the long descents towards the middle of the lane although I pissed off a few drivers I will live to ride again. There is no way I will ever ride the entire rim counterclockwise. Keep in mind that most drivers are looking toward the lake (why wouldn’t they) and if you are between the driver and the lake they are likely to see you. But when riding the other direction there is more risk of being unseen.


Carter Lake Century 2011 (not my video)

Another good time to ride around Crater Lake in the Crater Lake Century. I have never ridden with the organized century (I’ve always been training for something at that time – it’s held in August) but I have been told it is a blast. As far as I know the Rim Drive isn’t closed during the century but there are about 300 riders up there that day. The number of applicants is limited so register early if you want to get in. The century, obviously, involves more than the thirty-three mile Rim Drive and in addition to more climbing from Fort Klamath up to the Park Headquarters, there is some routing around the local farmlands near Fort Klamath to make it an even one hundred miles.

I would love to hear from other bicyclists, especially cyclists dealing with atrial fibrillation. Please feel free to comment below.