The prevalence of atrial fibrillation (AF) increases with age. As the population ages, the burden of AF increases.AF is associated with an increased incidence of mortality, stroke, and coronary events compared to sinus rhythm. AF with a rapid ventricular rate may cause a tachycardia-related cardiomyopathy. Immediate direct-current (DC) cardioversion should be performed in patients with AF and acute myocardial infarction, chest pain due to myocardial ischemia, hypotension, severe heart failure, or syncope. Intravenous beta blockers, diltiazem, or verapamil may be administered to reduce immediately a very rapid ventricular rate in AF. An oral beta blocker, verapamil, or diltiazem should be used in persons with AF if a fast ventricular rate occurs at rest or during exercise despite digoxin. Amiodarone may be used in selected patients with symptomatic life-threatening AF refractory to other drugs. Digoxin should not be used to treat patients with paroxysmal AF. Nondrug therapies should be performed in patients with symptomatic AF in whom a rapid ventricular rate cannot be slowed by drugs. Paroxysmal AF associated with the tachycardia-bradycardia syndrome should be treated with a permanent pacemaker in combination with drugs. A permanent pacemaker should be implanted in patients with AF and symptoms such as dizziness or syncope associated with ventricular pauses greater than 3 seconds which are not drug-induced. Elective DC cardioversion has a higher success rate and a lower incidence of cardiac adverse effects than does medical cardioversion in converting AF to sinus rhythm. Unless transesophageal echocardiography has shown no thrombus in the left atrial appendage before cardioversion, oral warfarin should be given for 3 weeks before elective DC or drug cardioversion of AF and continued for at least 4 weeks after maintenance of sinus rhythm. Many cardiologists prefer, especially in elderly patients , ventricular rate control plus warfarin rather than maintaining sinus rhythm with antiarrhythmic drugs. Patients with chronic or paroxysmal AF at high risk for stroke should be treated with long-term warfarin to achieve an International Normalized Ratio of 2.0 to 3.0. Patients with AF at low risk for stroke or with contraindications to warfarin should be treated with aspirin 325 mg daily.
Credits: Wilbert S. Aronow, MD, FACC, FAHA; Maciej Banach, MD, FESC, FASA