Atrial Fibrillation

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oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia, characterised by irregularly irregular ventricular pulse and loss of association between the cardiac apex beat and radial pulsation.[1] Loss of active ventricular filling is associated with:

  • Stagnation of blood in the atria leading to thrombus formation and a risk of embolism, increasing the risk of stroke.
  • Reduction in cardiac output (especially during exercise) which may lead to heart failure.
  • Acute: onset within the previous 48 hours.
  • Paroxysmal: spontaneous termination within seven days and most often within 48 hours. Paroxysmal AF may degenerate into a sustained form of AF.
  • Recurrent:
    • Two or more episodes, which may be defined as paroxysmal if they terminate spontaneously or persistent if the arrhythmia requires electrical or pharmacological cardioversion for termination.
    • Successful termination of AF does not alter the classification of persistent AF.
  • Persistent: not self-terminating; lasting longer than seven days, or prior cardioversion. Persistent AF may degenerate into permanent AF.
  • Permanent:
    • Long-standing AF (defined as over a year) that is not successfully terminated by cardioversion, when cardioversion is not pursued or has relapsed following termination.
    • Reversion of permanent AF to normal sinus rhythm is possible, particularly in those cases where the AF is caused by an underlying disease process which is successfully treated (eg, thyroid disease) or where a specialist procedure is performed that modifies the electrophysiological properties of the heart.

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  • AF is the most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia, and estimates suggest its prevalence is increasing.[2] 
  • Prevalence is approximately 1% of the population.[3]
  • The prevalence increases with age; from 0.7% in people aged 55-59 years to 18% in those older than 85 years.[4]
  • More common in males than in females.[2] 

Idiopathic ('lone') AF accounts for 5-10% of patients (diagnosis of exclusion with no evidence of any specific underlying cause). Underlying causes of AF include:

  • Hypertension (especially with associated left ventricular hypertrophy).
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Valvular heart disease, especially mitral valve stenosis.
  • Cardiac surgery.
  • Myocarditis.
  • Atrial septal defect.
  • Atrial myxoma.
  • Sick sinus syndrome.
  • Pre-excitation syndromes with accessory conduction pathways - eg, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
  • Dilated and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
  • Pericardial disease - eg, pericardial effusion, constrictive pericarditis.
  • Hyperthyroidism.
  • Acute infections (especially pneumonia in the elderly).
  • Acute excess alcohol intake or chronic excess alcohol intake.
  • Respiratory (lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pleural effusion, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary hypertension).
  • Other causes include obesity, sleep apnoea, haemochromatosis, sarcoidosis, and narcotic abuse
  • Genetic: autosomal dominant (rare).

Perform manual pulse palpation to assess for the presence of an irregular pulse that may indicate underlying AF in people presenting with any of the following:[2] 

  • Breathlessness/dyspnoea.
  • Palpitations.
  • Syncope/dizziness.
  • Chest discomfort.
  • Stroke/transient ischaemic attack.

The WatchBP® Home A device (Microlife) is an oscillometric blood pressure monitor. While recording blood pressure, it automatically detects pulse irregularity that may be caused by symptomatic or asymptomatic AF. The device reliably detects AF and may increase the rate of detection when used in primary care. WatchBP® Home A should be considered for use in people with suspected hypertension and those being screened or monitored for hypertension in primary care.[5] 

  • AF is often associated with other arrhythmias - eg, atrial flutter or supraventricular tachycardia.
  • AF can alternate with atrial flutter, atrial flutter may develop into AF and atrial flutter may occur during treatment of AF with anti-arrhythmic drugs.
  • In patients with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, AF can lead to rapid ventricular rates and ventricular fibrillation, especially when atrioventricular nodal blocking agents are used.

Further assessment is focused on identifying any underlying cause, and assessment of cardiac function:[4]

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) should be performed in all people, whether symptomatic or not, in whom AF is suspected because an irregular pulse has been detected:[2] 
    • An ECG is diagnostic except in paroxysmal AF between attacks. The distinguishing feature of AF is variability in the R-R intervals.
    • If paroxysmal AF is suspected and has not been detected by standard ECG recording, a 24-hour ambulatory ECG monitor should be used if asymptomatic episodes are suspected or if episodes are less than 24 hours apart.
    • An event recorder ECG should be used where symptomatic episodes are more than 24 hours apart.
  • In people with suspected paroxysmal AF undetected by standard ECG recording: use a 24-hour ambulatory ECG monitor in those with suspected asymptomatic episodes or symptomatic episodes less than 24 hours apart. Use an event recorder ECG in those with symptomatic episodes more than 24 hours apart.[2] 
  • Blood tests: TFTs, FBC (anaemia may precipitate heart failure), renal function and electrolytes (abnormal serum potassium levels can potentiate arrhythmias, especially if the patient is taking, or about to start, digoxin), LFTs and coagulation screen (pre-warfarin).
  • CXR (may indicate cardiac structural causes of AF, such as mitral valve disease, or heart failure).
  • Echocardiogram:
    • Transthoracic echocardiography (TTE) should be performed in people with AF:
      • For whom a baseline echocardiogram is important for long-term management.
      • For whom a rhythm-control strategy that includes cardioversion (electrical or pharmacological) is being considered.
      • In whom there is a high risk or a suspicion of underlying structural/functional heart disease (eg, heart failure or heart murmur) that influences subsequent management (eg, choice of antiarrhythmic drug).
      • In whom refinement of clinical risk stratification for antithrombotic therapy is needed.
    • TTE should not routinely be performed solely for the purpose of further stroke risk stratification in people with AF for whom the need to initiate anticoagulation therapy has already been agreed on appropriate clinical criteria.
    • Perform transoesophageal echocardiography (TOE) in people with AF:
      • When TTE demonstrates an abnormality (such as valvular heart disease) that warrants further specific assessment in whom TTE is technically difficult and/or of questionable quality and where there is a need to exclude cardiac abnormalities.
      • For whom TOE-guided cardioversion is being considered.
  • CT or MRI scan of the brain: should be performed if there is any suggestion of stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA).
  • The management of AF involves control of the arrhythmia (by rhythm or rate control) and thromboprophylaxis to prevent strokes.
  • Treat any underlying cause - eg, acute infection, hyperthyroidism. AF may revert on treatment or resolution of an associated problem - eg, acute infection or alcohol intoxication.
  • Treat associated heart failure.

No further intervention may be required; lifestyle changes, such as avoiding the precipitating factor (eg, alcohol or caffeine) may suffice.

Urgent admission to hospital may be indicated when:[6]

  • There is a very rapid pulse (greater than 150 bpm) and/or low blood pressure (systolic blood pressure less than 90 mm Hg).
  • There is loss of consciousness, severe dizziness, ongoing chest pain, or increasing breathlessness.
  • There is a complication of AF, such as stroke, TIA or acute heart failure.

Routine referral to a cardiologist should be considered when:

  • The person is young - eg, less than 50 years of age.
  • Paroxysmal AF is suspected.
  • There is uncertainty regarding whether rate or rhythm control should be used.
  • Drug treatments that can be used in primary care are contra-indicated or have failed to control symptoms.
  • The person is found to have valve disease or left ventricular systolic dysfunction on echocardiography.
  • Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome or a prolonged QT interval is suspected on the electrocardiogram.

Refer people promptly at any stage if treatment fails to control the symptoms of AF and more specialised assessment and management are required.[2] 

Offer rate control as the first-line strategy to people with AF, except in people:[2] 

  • Whose AF has a reversible cause.
  • Who have heart failure thought to be primarily caused by AF.
  • With new-onset AF.
  • For whom a rhythm control strategy would be more suitable based on clinical judgement.

Rate control[2] 

  • Offer either a standard beta-blocker (a beta-blocker other than sotalol) or a rate-limiting calcium-channel blocker as initial monotherapy to people with AF who need drug treatment as part of a rate control strategy.
  • Consider digoxin monotherapy for people with non-paroxysmal AF only if they are sedentary (do no or very little physical exercise).
  • If monotherapy does not control symptoms, and if continuing symptoms are thought to be due to poor ventricular rate control, consider combination therapy with any two of the following: beta-blocker, diltiazem, digoxin.
  • Do not offer amiodarone for long-term rate control..

Rhythm control[2] 

Consider pharmacological and/or electrical rhythm control for people with AF whose symptoms continue after heart rate has been controlled or for whom a rate-control strategy has not been successful.

Cardioversion

  • For people having cardioversion for AF that has persisted for longer than 48 hours, offer electrical (rather than pharmacological) cardioversion.
  • Consider amiodarone therapy starting four weeks before and continuing for up to twelve months after electrical cardioversion to maintain sinus rhythm.
  • For people with AF greater than 48 hours of duration, in whom elective cardioversion is indicated:
    • Both TOE-guided cardioversion and conventional cardioversion should be considered equally effective.
    • A TOE-guided cardioversion strategy should be considered where experienced staff and appropriate facilities are available and where a minimal period of pre-cardioversion anticoagulation is indicated due to the person's choice or bleeding risks.

Drug treatment for long-term rhythm control

  • Assess the need for drug treatment for long-term rhythm control, taking into account the person's preferences, associated comorbidities, risks of treatment and likelihood of recurrence of AF.
  • If drug treatment for long-term rhythm control is needed, consider a standard beta-blocker (a beta-blocker other than sotalol) as first-line treatment unless there are contra-indications.
  • If beta-blockers are contra-indicated or unsuccessful, assess the suitability of alternative drugs for rhythm control, taking comorbidities into account.
  • Dronedarone is recommended as an option for the maintenance of sinus rhythm after successful cardioversion in people with paroxysmal or persistent AF:[7] 
    • Whose AF is not controlled by first-line therapy (usually including beta-blockers); and
    • Who have at least one of the following cardiovascular risk factors:
      • Hypertension requiring drugs of at least two different classes, diabetes mellitus, previous TIA, stroke or systemic embolism, left atrial diameter of 50 mm or greater, or age 70 years or older; and
    • Who do not have left ventricular systolic dysfunction; and
    • Who do not have a history of, or current, heart failure.
  • Consider amiodarone for people with left ventricular impairment or heart failure.
  • Do not offer class 1c anti-arrhythmic drugs such as flecainide or propafenone to people with known ischaemic or structural heart disease.
  • Where people have infrequent paroxysms and few symptoms, or where symptoms are induced by known precipitants (eg, alcohol, caffeine), a 'no drug treatment' strategy or a 'pill-in-the-pocket' strategy should be considered. In people with paroxysmal AF, a 'pill-in-the-pocket' strategy should be considered for those who:
    • Have no history of left ventricular dysfunction, or valvular or ischaemic heart disease; and
    • Have a history of infrequent symptomatic episodes of paroxysmal AF; and
    • Have a systolic blood pressure greater than 100 mm Hg and a resting heart rate above 70 bpm and are able to understand how to, and when to, take the medication.

Left atrial ablation

If drug treatment has failed to control symptoms of AF or is unsuitable:[2] 

  • Offer left atrial catheter ablation to people with paroxysmal AF.
  • Consider left atrial catheter or surgical ablation for people with persistent AF.
  • Consider left atrial surgical ablation at the same time as other cardiothoracic surgery for people with symptomatic AF.

Pace and ablate strategy[2] 

  • Consider pacing and atrioventricular node ablation for people with permanent AF with symptoms or left ventricular dysfunction thought to be caused by high ventricular rates.
  • When considering pacing and atrioventricular node ablation, reassess symptoms and the consequent need for ablation after pacing has been carried out and drug treatment further optimised.
  • Consider left atrial catheter ablation before pacing and atrioventricular node ablation for people with paroxysmal AF or heart failure caused by non-permanent (paroxysmal or persistent) AF.

See also the separate article on Stroke Prevention.

  • Doctors and patients can use Decision Aids together to help choose the best course of action to take.
  • Compare the options »

Assessment of stroke risk[2] 

Use the CHA2DS2-VASc stroke risk score to assess stroke risk in people with symptomatic or asymptomatic paroxysmal, persistent or permanent AF, or a continuing risk of arrhythmia recurrence after cardioversion back to sinus rhythm. See under 'Further reading & references', below, for the CHA2DS2-VASc stroke risk calculator.[8] 

Patients with AF who are clearly low-risk, (age <65 and lone AF) do not require antithrombotic therapy. This applies to male patients with CHA2DS2-VASc score = 0 and female patients with CHA2DS2-VASc score = 1 in whom the single point is allocated due to female sex.[9] 

Bleeding risk[2] 
Use the HAS-BLED score to assess the risk of bleeding in people who are starting or have started anticoagulation. See under 'Further reading & references', below, for the HAS-BLED risk calculator.[10] Offer modification and monitoring of the following risk factors:

  • Uncontrolled hypertension.
  • Poor control of international normalised ratio (INR) ('labile INRs').
  • Concurrent medication - for example, concomitant use of aspirin or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
  • Harmful alcohol consumption.

Anticoagulation[2] 

  • Anticoagulation may be with apixaban, dabigatran etexilate, rivaroxaban or a vitamin K antagonist (eg, warfarin).
  • Offer anticoagulation to people with a CHA2DS2-VASc score of 2 or above, taking bleeding risk into account.
  • If poor anticoagulation control cannot be improved, evaluate the risks and benefits of alternative stroke prevention strategies.
  • Do not offer aspirin monotherapy solely for stroke prevention to people with AF.

Apixaban[11] 
Apixaban is recommended as an option for preventing stroke and systemic embolism in people with non-valvular AF with one or more risk factors such as prior stroke or TIA, age 75 years or older, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and symptomatic heart failure.

Dabigatran etexilate[12] 
Dabigatran etexilate is recommended as an option for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in people with non-valvular AF with one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Previous stroke, TIA attack or systemic embolism.
  • Left ventricular ejection fraction below 40%.
  • Symptomatic heart failure of New York Heart Association (NYHA) class 2 or above.
  • Age 75 years or older.
  • Age 65 years or older with one of the following: diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease or hypertension.

Rivaroxaban[13] 
Rivaroxaban is recommended as an option for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in people with non-valvular AF with one or more risk factors such as:

  • Congestive heart failure.
  • Hypertension.
  • Age 75 years or older.
  • Diabetes mellitus.
  • Prior stroke or transient ischaemic attack.

Assessing anticoagulation control with vitamin K antagonists, including warfarin 
See also the separate article on Oral Anticoagulants.

Left atrial appendage occlusion 
Should be considered if anticoagulation is contra-indicated or not tolerated.[14] 

Rate and rhythm control

  • Emergency electrical cardioversion, without delaying to achieve anticoagulation, is required for people with life-threatening haemodynamic instability caused by new-onset AF.
  • In people with AF presenting acutely with haemodynamic instability, offer rate or rhythm control if the onset of the arrhythmia is less than 48 hours, and start rate control if it is more than 48 hours or is uncertain.
  • Consider either pharmacological or electrical cardioversion depending on clinical circumstances and resources in people with new-onset AF who will be treated with a rhythm control strategy.
  • If pharmacological cardioversion has been agreed on clinical and resource grounds for new-onset AF, offer flecainide or amiodarone if there is no evidence of structural or ischaemic heart disease, or amiodarone if there is evidence of structural heart disease.
  • In people with AF in whom the duration of the arrhythmia is greater than 48 hours or uncertain and considered for long-term rhythm control, delay cardioversion until they have been maintained on therapeutic anticoagulation for a minimum of three weeks. During this period offer rate control as appropriate.
  • Do not offer magnesium or a calcium-channel blocker for pharmacological cardioversion.

Anticoagulation

In people with new-onset AF who are receiving no, or subtherapeutic, anticoagulation therapy: in the absence of contra-indications, offer heparin at initial presentation and continue heparin until a full assessment has been made and appropriate antithrombotic therapy has been started, based on risk stratification.

In people with a confirmed diagnosis of AF of recent onset (less than 48 hours since onset), offer oral anticoagulation if stable sinus rhythm is not successfully restored within the same 48-hour period following onset of AF, or there are factors indicating a high risk of AF, or it is recommended following assessment using the CHA2DS2-VASc score.

In people with new-onset AF where there is uncertainty over the precise time since onset, offer oral anticoagulation as for persistent AF.

  • Cryoablation or high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) ablation may be used in the management of AF for patients undergoing concomitant open-heart surgery - eg, mitral valve replacement or repair.[15][16]
  • Microwave ablation of the atria for patients with AF can be performed via a catheter introduced through a femoral vein or by surgical microwave ablation in patients undergoing concomitant open-heart surgery.[17]
  • Thoracoscopic epicardial radiofrequency ablation has been shown to be effective, at least in the short term.[18]
  • AF increases risk of stroke six-fold (much more in patients with rheumatic heart disease), and becomes increasingly important as a risk factor for stroke with increasing age. Paroxysmal as well as persistent AF increases risk of stroke.
  • The risk of stroke is less in patients with no other structural heart disease ('lone AF').
  • AF can also precipitate acute heart failure and aggravate established heart failure.
  • Chronic atrial tachyarrhythmia may lead to cardiomyopathy.
  • AF is associated with an approximate doubling of the risk of premature death.
  • There may be implications for the patient's fitness to drive. Check with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
  • AF is associated with reduced life expectancy in older patients.
  • People with AF have double the mortality and a five-fold higher risk of stroke than those without fibrillation.[6]
  • Prognosis depends on the patient's underlying medical condition.
  • Any atrial arrhythmia can cause a tachycardia-induced cardiomyopathy.
  • Smoking cessation: smoking is a risk factor for coronary heart disease as well as a precipitating factor for AF.
  • Alcohol moderation or avoidance: acute alcoholic intoxication or alcohol withdrawal may precipitate paroxysmal AF.
  • Diet: caffeine may induce paroxysmal AF in susceptible individuals.

Further reading & references

  1. Lip GY, Tse HF; Management of atrial fibrillation. Lancet. 2007 Aug 18;370(9587):604-18.
  2. Management of atrial fibrillation; NICE Clinical guideline (June 2014)
  3. The management of people with atrial fibrillation and flutter; New Zealand Guidelines Group, May 2005
  4. Lafuente-Lafuente C, Mahe I, Extramiana F; Management of atrial fibrillation. BMJ. 2009 Dec 23;339:b5216. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b5216.
  5. WatchBP Home A for opportunistically detecting atrial fibrillation during diagnosis and monitoring of hypertension; NICE Medical technologies guidance (Jan 2013)
  6. Atrial fibrillation; NICE CKS, August 2009
  7. Dronedarone for the treatment of non-permanent atrial fibrillation; NICE Technology Appraisal Guideline, August 2010
  8. CHADS2 Score - Stroke Risk in Atrial Fibrillation; MDCalc Online Calculator
  9. Antithrombotics: indications and management; Scotttish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (updated Jun 2013)
  10. HAS-BLED Score for Major Bleeding Risk; MDCalc
  11. Stroke and systemic embolism (prevention, non-valvular atrial fibrillation) - apixaban; NICE Technology Appraisal, Feb 2013
  12. Atrial fibrillation - dabigatran etexilate; NICE Technology Appraisal Guideline, March 2012
  13. Atrial fibrillation (stroke prevention) - rivaroxaban; NICE Technology Appraisal Guideline, May 2012
  14. Percutaneous occlusion of the left atrial appendage in non-valvular atrial fibrillation for the prevention of thromboembolism; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline, June 2010
  15. High-intensity focused ultrasound ablation for atrial fibrillation as an associated procedure with other cardiac surgery; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline, July 2006
  16. Cryoablation for atrial fibrillation in association with other cardiac surgery; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline, 2005
  17. Microwave ablation for atrial fibrillation in association with other cardiac surgery, NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline, 2005
  18. Thoracoscopic epicardial radiofrequency ablation for atrial fibrillation; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline, January 2009

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
452 (v28)
Last Checked:
26/06/2014
Next Review:
25/06/2019