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July 21, 2015

Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

Author Affiliations
  • 1St Vincent Medical Group, St Vincent Hospital, Indianapolis, Indiana
JAMA. 2015;314(3):278-288. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.7505

Importance  Atrial fibrillation is a common arrhythmia that affects more than 2.5 million people in the United States and causes substantial morbidity and mortality, especially regarding the increased risk of stroke.

Objective  To summarize atrial fibrillation treatment exclusive of stroke prevention.

Evidence Review  An Ovid MEDLINE comprehensive literature search was performed on atrial fibrillation therapy excluding anticoagulation and emphasizing studies published within the last 5 years through April 2015 (N = 5044 references). The 2014 atrial fibrillation guideline from the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and the Heart Rhythm Society also was reviewed.

Findings  Reversible causes of atrial fibrillation should be identified. Risk factor modification, including weight loss and treatment of hypertension, diabetes, and obstructive sleep apnea can reduce atrial fibrillation episodes. Appropriate anticoagulation is necessary for patients at substantial stroke risk regardless of rate or rhythm treatment strategy. Sinus rhythm is often needed to control symptoms; however, an alternative strategy for atrial fibrillation is appropriate rate control. Rate control is safe in older patients (those who are about age ≥65 years) followed up for a few years, but no such safety data exist for patients younger than 60 years or for those followed up for longer periods. Thus, selection of therapy is individualized, taking into account present and future medical problems for the patient. Choice of an antiarrhythmic drug is based on safety first vs efficacy. Catheter ablation is an effective nonpharmacological alternative that is often, but not always, the second-line treatment. Reduction of the frequency and duration of atrial fibrillation episodes that result in a significant improvement in quality of life is a good marker of drug treatment success and complete elimination of atrial fibrillation is not required in many patients. Rate control is usually achieved with a β-blocker or non–dihydropyridine calcium channel blockers. It is important to assess adequate rate control during both rest and activity. If the ventricular rate goes uncontrolled for a prolonged period, tachycardia-mediated cardiomyopathy can occur.

Conclusions and Relevance  Therapy for atrial fibrillation includes prevention and modification of inciting causes and appropriate anticoagulation. Rate control is necessary for all patients. Maintenance of sinus rhythm with drugs or catheter ablation should be considered based on the individual needs of each patient.

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