You’ve been diagnosed with AFib, and one of the first things your medical team talks about is blood thinners. If you’re like me, your immediate response is “Do I have to?” Or when I was younger, “No thank you, not for me!”
So why blood thinners? When you have AFib, the atrium is not beating (it’s fibrillating), which can cause blood to pool, which can cause blood clots. Blood clots can get stuck as they move around your body, which then can cause a stroke. Blood thinners prevent blood clots, which, in turn, prevents strokes.
I’ve had a long and tortuous history with blood thinners, but I’ve come to a place where I recognize their value and I’m comfortable with the kind I’m taking.
When first diagnosed with AFib at age 24 (in 1979), they didn’t know what to do with me. They said that they’d put me on blood thinners if I was 70, but at my young age that didn’t make sense to them. I was told to take an adult aspirin daily and that would adequately thin my blood. It sure did. Over the years, that recommendation was lowered to a baby aspirin a day, which I took for decades.
No changes were suggested for my first pregnancy (in 1991), and all went well. During the pregnancy for my second child (in 1994), the doctor put me on the blood thinner heparin. This entailed my getting a shot of heparin daily. Not only was I too squeamish to give myself the shots (my husband had to do it), each insertion spot bloomed a beautiful black and blue bruise. Six-plus months of daily shots in a different spot every day, you can imagine what a colorful pregnant lady I was! I’m told that heparin is no longer used as a daily blood thinner for AFib patients.
I had to be on blood thinners for several months after my first ablation (in 2009), and they put me on warfarin (Coumadin). I had to be tested weekly to confirm drug levels (a trip to the lab each time, and continual dosage adjustments) and my diet was severely limited. Any foods high in vitamin K can mess with warfarin’s effectiveness. And many of the foods that are good for you and happen to be my favorites were off-limits (green leafy vegetables, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, chamomile or green tea). And while I was not injecting warfarin (phew!), we used to joke that I’d bruise if you looked at me funny. It was a highly successful blood thinner. I was thrilled when the mandatory post-ablation period ended and I could go back to my baby aspirin. Doctors still regularly prescribe warfarin for AFib patients.
At some point around my 60th birthday, the doctor persuaded me that I should be taking blood thinners prophylactically, as risk of stroke increases with age. By this time, there was a whole new class of blood thinners available: non-vitamin K oral anticoagulants (NOACs, sold under brand names like Eliquis, Pradaxa, Xarelto and others). I have been taking this type of blood thinner since then and have not regretted the decision. I eat whatever I want, and my blood is checked once a year. I do bleed a little longer than non-medicated people do if I get cut, but applying pressure to the spot has worked so far. I also bruise more easily than I used to, and the bruises hang around a long time, but no one’s going to rush me to the ER based on how I look. It has not affected my lifestyle; in particular, I have not stopped hiking in remote areas. My family doesn’t like me to use knives because I’m clumsy, but I do anyway.
There is a trend to call these medications “stroke prevention meds,” possibly to be more accurate, but my cynical self thinks the name change is also to make them sound less scary. Whatever you call them, the purpose of these meds is to thin your blood so that you won’t have clots big enough to cause a stroke. And that’s a very important outcome. If your medical team talks to you about blood thinners (or stroke prevention meds), listen carefully. Do the nature of your AFib (paroxysmal or permanent), your age, or other medical conditions increase your risk of stroke? Or are they just saying AFib = blood thinners? If you decide to take a blood thinner, do your research about which kind to take. The quality-of-life implications are huge.
Photo Credit: Jamie Grill / Tetra Images via Getty Images
Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.
Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.