[Atrial fibrillation in heart failure]

Angelika Costard-Jäckle
Herz 2002, 27 (4): 378-87

BACKGROUND: Atrial fibrillation is a common arrhythmia in patients with congestive heart failure caused by left ventricular dysfunction and is associated with significant morbidity and possibly increased mortality rates. It occurs with increasing frequency as the severity of heart failure increases.

TREATMENT: As therapeutic options, two basic strategies are available: rhythm control with or without pharmacological manipulation to increase the chance of successful cardioversion and to maintain sinus rhythm, and rate control with anticoagulation. So far, a clear benefit of one of these two strategies over the other has not been demonstrated for patients with atrial fibrillation generally, nor have there been convincing data for the subgroup of heart failure patients. Traditionally, digoxin has been used in patients with heart failure and atrial fibrillation; however, it has no proven potential to restore sinus rhythm and is slow and not very effective in rate control requiring the addition of another rate-limiting agent, preferably a beta-blocker or calcium antagonist. Amiodarone has been evaluated in numerous clinical trials in patients with heart failure and appears to be safe and effective in terms of conversion to sinus rhythm, maintenance of sinus rhythm as well as control of ventricular rate. Dofetilide may be another option in patients with atrial fibrillation and heart failure, although a direct comparison with amiodarone is lacking. The problem with all antiarrhythmic drugs specifically in patients with heart failure is their toxicity. Because of their proarrhythmic effects, Class I antiarrhythmics are contraindicated in patients with heart failure. Torsades de pointes is the most serious adverse effect of sotalol and dofetilide. Amiodaron has less proarrhythmic risk but has numerous non-cardiac toxicities that require frequent monitoring.

CONCLUSION: Overall, due to a low efficacy rate and high proarrhythmic risks, an ideal antiarrhythmic agent for patients with atrial fibrillation and heart failure does not exist, and drug selection should be highly individualized. In patients with chronic atrial fibrillation and heart failure, anticoagulation with warfarin for prevention of thromboembolic events is mandatory.

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