People across west Suffolk are being urged to have their pulses checked for signs of a heart condition that has been described as a “ticking time bomb”.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate and is one of the major causes of severe stroke, particularly among the over-65s.

The condition is all the more dangerous because many sufferers do not show any obvious symptoms and may be completely unaware they have it.

Health practitioners in west Suffolk, which has an estimated 1,700 undiagnosed AF sufferers, have been successfully trialling a simple device that can identify those people likely to have the condition.

They have now adopted the ‘Detect, Protect, Correct and Perfect’ policy, and are teaming up with Abbeycroft Leisure in a bid to locate and treat AF sufferers.

Abbeycroft staff have been trained to use the new device, and are now able to offer AF checks at their leisure centres in the west of the county.

OneLife Suffolk has also recently started testing people for AF when delivering the NHS Health Check.

Martin Bate, Transformation Project Manager for the NHS West Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group, said time was of the essence when it came to diagnosing and treating AF.

He said: “We have a problem in Suffolk because data shows that of all the people admitted to West Suffolk Hospital following a stroke, 35 per cent of them had AF. The national average is 25 per cent.
“We are now pursuing the ‘Detect, Protect, Correct and Perfect’ policy. The ‘Detect’ part involves raising awareness of the symptoms of AF, particularly among the over-65s.
“The ‘Protect’ element involves GPs and hospitals adopting a decisive approach when AF is diagnosed and putting people straight onto the new oral anticoagulants.
“None of the possible side effects of these anticoagulant drugs is anywhere near as dangerous as the risk of a severe stroke.
“The ‘Perfect’ part is about optimising treatment to ensure patients receive the correct dose of anticoagulant.
“The rest is down to the patients. They must keep taking the drugs once they’ve been prescribed.
“If you had been diagnosed why wouldn’t you keep up with your treatment? To not do so could lead to a severe stroke that could prove fatal or lead to major permanent disability.”

The Kardia Alivecor device used by Martin’s health colleagues and their Abbeycroft partners measures a person’s pulse for irregularity and shows within a minute if they might have AF.
He added: “It indicates where someone is showing an irregular heartbeat that might mean they have AF.
“In those instances, we advise people to go straight to their GP and ask for more tests.
“This week (18-24 November) is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Week so it’s a great time for people to get themselves checked out.”

Traditionally, AF sufferers have been treated with Aspirin, which is ineffective, or Warfarin, which can be effective but is unpredictable.

Clinicians are now prescribing a new generation of anticoagulants for people diagnosed with AF that can reduce the likelihood of a severe stroke by up to 70 per cent.

Portfolio GP Dr John Cannon, Visiting Professor of Primary Care at the University of Suffolk with a special interest in cardiology, said: “A normal heart rate should be regular and between 60 and 80 beats per minute when you’re resting.

“You can measure your heart rate by feeling the pulse in your neck and wrist.
“With atrial fibrillation, the heart rate is irregular and can sometimes be very fast, in some cases considerably higher than 100 beats per minute.
“This can cause problems including dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain and tiredness. You may be aware of noticeable heart palpitations, where your heart feels like it’s pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, often for a few seconds or in some cases a few minutes.”

Matthew Hickey, Development Manager at Abbeycroft Leisure, said:
“As well as managing 19 leisure facilities across Suffolk, we are passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of the local community.

“That is why we are so proud to be working in partnership with the NHS West Suffolk CCG and West Suffolk Hospital Foundation Trust to support their atrial fibrillation detection project.
“Our staff have undergone training that will allow our members and wider local communities to be checked for signs of atrial fibrillation, adding extra value and supporting us to reach our overall mission to ‘inspire a healthier you’.

“Drop-in sessions have now started where checks are offered for free throughout our sites in the west of the county, so look out for the stations in your local leisure centre.”

In addition to the support Abbeycroft is providing, a network of trained volunteers have been taking the fight against AF across west Suffolk.

They have targeted large local employers including West Suffolk Council and British Sugar and have already detected 48 people with possible AF.

A further 100 potential sufferers have been identified through AF testing that was recently carried out alongside the over-65s flu clinics at GP surgeries.

One such volunteer is Ben Lord, Chairman of Ixworth Parish Council, whose grandfather died from a stroke caused by AF.

Picture credit:  Phil Morley Photography
Byron Gross (Abbeycroft Fitness Instructor) and Sandra Claydon (Abbeycroft Member) having her AF test at Haverhill Leisure Centre.