Systematic review of the management of atrial fibrillation in patients with heart failure

A U Khand, A C Rankin, G C Kaye, J G Cleland
European Heart Journal 2000, 21 (8): 614-32

AIMS: To systematically review the management of atrial fibrillation (AF) in patients with heart failure.

METHODS: Studies investigating the management of AF in patients with heart failure published between 1967 to 1998 were identified using MEDLINE, the Cochrane register and Embase databases. Reference lists from relevant papers and reviews were hand searched for further papers.

RESULTS: Eight studies pertaining to acute and twenty-four pertaining to chronic AF were identified. For patients with acute AF ventricular rate control, anticoagulation and treatment of heart failure should be pursued simultaneously before cardioversion is attempted. Digoxin is relatively ineffective at controlling ventricular response and for cardioversion. Intravenous diltiazem is rapidly effective in controlling ventricular rate and limited evidence suggests it is safe. Amiodarone controls ventricular rate rapidly and increases the rate of cardioversion. There are insufficient data to conclude that immediate anti-coagulation, trans-oesophageal echocardiography to exclude atrial thrombi followed by immediate cardioversion is an appropriate strategy. Patients with chronic AF should be anti-coagulated unless contra-indications exist. It is not clear whether the preferred strategy should be cardioversion and maintenance of sinus rhythm with amiodarone or ventricular rate control of AF combined with anticoagulation to improve outcome including symptoms, morbidity and survival. Electrical cardioversion has a high initial success rate but there is also a high risk of early relapse. Amiodarone currently appears the most effective and safest therapy for maintaining sinus rhythm post-cardioversion. Digoxin is fairly ineffective at controlling ventricular rate during exercise. Addition of a beta-blocker reduces ventricular rate and improves symptoms. Whether digoxin is required in addition to beta-blockade for the control of AF in this setting is currently under investigation. If pharmacological therapy is ineffective or not tolerated then atrio-ventricular node ablation and permanent pacemaker implantation should be considered.

CONCLUSION: There is a paucity of controlled clinical trial data for the management of AF among patients with heart failure. The interaction between AF and heart failure means that neither can be treated optimally without treating both. Presently treatment should be on a case by case basis.

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