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Bye Bye Blood Thinners? How the Watchman Device May Prevent Stroke

Medication has long been a typical treatment for the risk of stroke stemming from Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), but now there is an alternative option: the WATCHMAN Device.

This is a small device that is implanted in your heart to stop blood clots that can travel from the heart into the bloodstream.

What’s the Connection Between Stroke and Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat. If you are one of the 2.7 million people in the U.S. who has AFib, you may feel as if your heart is flip-flopping in your chest. Or you may notice your heartbeat feels faster. In some cases, you may have no symptoms at all.

When your heart quivers or beats erratically — as it does in people with atrial fibrillation — the upper chambers of the heart (atria) produce a less effective contraction.

If the contraction is either too fast or too uneven, it won’t push the blood to the next chamber as it should. This can cause blood to pool in one of the heart’s upper chambers, which increases the risk of clotting.

If a clot forms and is pushed out of the heart and into the brain, this can block the blood supply and cause a stroke.

About 15% to 20% of people who have a stroke have AFib. But early detection and treatment of AFib can help lower this risk.

One innovative, life-saving treatment option is called the WATCHMAN Device. Here’s what you should know about this solution that has many patients saying bye-bye to blood thinners.

An Alternative to Blood Thinners: Is a WATCHMAN Device Right for You?

Blood thinners, like Warfarin or other anticoagulants, are often prescribed to prevent blood clots that cause stroke.

Warfarin, which is an anticoagulant, may thin the blood, but it can also create a higher risk of bleeding complications. This is because Warfarin thins blood throughout the body, not just in and around the heart. So, bleeding elsewhere can be a concern.

The WATCHMAN Device may be a better treatment option, especially for qualifying patients whose AFib is not caused by a heart valve problem. This is known as non-valvular AFib.

What is the WATCHMAN Device?

Simply put, the WATCHMAN Device is an implant designed to prevent blood clots from escaping the heart and entering the bloodstream. It is a small device — the size of a quarter once implanted and expanded — that is implanted into your left atrial appendage (LAA).

The LAA is a small portion off the left wall of the primary atrium of your heart where blood has the risk of pooling.

In patients with non-valvular AFib, the left atrial appendage is the most common source of blood clots, and the WATCHMAN may effectively prohibit those clots from making it to the brain, causing a stroke. The WATCHMAN Device has been found to offer as much protection from stroke as blood thinners.

Sources: Cardiovascular Research Foundation; Current Cardiology Reviews; Journal of Atrial Fibrillation

Is the WATCHMAN Device right for me?

There are several reasons why the WATCHMAN Device may be right for some patients.

You may want to discuss the following questions with your physician:

  • Are you concerned about the higher risk of bleeding involved with taking blood thinners?
  • Are you taking other medications — including other anticoagulants (such as Warfarin), pain medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) (such as ibuprofen), and antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)  — that might have interactions to blood thinners?
  • Are you struggling to consistently take your medication so it works effectively?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the WATCHMAN Device might be an option for you to lower your risk of stroke.

The WATCHMAN Device: Terms to Keep in Mind

  1. Cardiologist: the specialty physician who is trained in heart care. A cardiologist must be specially trained in order to utilize the WATCHMAN Device.
  2. Non-valvular AFib: AFib not caused by abnormal heart valves. WATCHMAN may be most effective for people with this type of AFib.
  3. Embolic Stroke: a stroke that occurs because of an obstruction in the vessel that supplies blood to the brain. This is the type of stroke the WATCHMAN device is designed to prevent.
  4. Left Atrial Appendage (LAA): a part of the heart that often acts as a reservoir. This is where the WATCHMAN Device will be placed to keep clots from entering the bloodstream

How the WATCHMAN Device is Implanted

  1. Your cardiologist will begin by creating a small incision in your groin and inserting a catheter (or sheath), which will give them access to your blood vessels.
  2. Your cardiologist will then insert a compact form of the WATCHMAN Device into the sheath, and use this tube to guide the device up through your blood vessels to your heart.
  3. Once in your heart, the device is expanded and is placed in your left atrial appendage.
  4. After it has been implanted, your treatment team will confirm that the device was placed correctly. They may do this using cine-angiography, which produces pictures of your blood vessels, or transesophageal echocardiography (TEE), which produces pictures of your heart.
  5. The entire procedure takes about one hour.

Who will be on my treatment team?

In addition to your cardiologist, your care team will consist of advanced cardiac imaging specialists, who will help your cardiologist guide the device through the catheter and place it properly. Because you will be asleep, an anesthesiologist will assist with the general anesthesia.

The Fast-Track To Recovery

A major benefit of WATCHMAN is its quick recovery.After the device is implanted, you may be released from the hospital within 24 hours.

Your physician will work with you to reduce the amount of blood thinning medication you take as you recover, and you may also be prescribed aspirin either short- or long-term to continue to avoid future blood clots. Your cardiology team may monitor you for around 2 years after the procedure.

Why Choose Stormont Vail Health

Located in Topeka, Kansas, Stormont Vail Health is a community-focused healthcare organization. It offers health care services close to home making it easier for you to get the care you need.

Stormont Vail Hospital has also received several accreditations from The Joint Commission, including Advanced Primary Stroke Center and Chest Pain.

Stormont Vail has the experienced and skilled medical team to help you explore whether the WATCHMAN Device is right for you.

Next Steps

Make an Appointment

To make an appointment at the Cotton O’Neil Heart Center, call (785) 270-4000.

See a Primary Care Provider

  • Call (785) 270-4440 to schedule an appointment with your Stormont Vail primary care provider.
  • Not a Stormont Vail patient? Call (785) 270-4440 to set up your first appointment with one of our primary care providers.