JOURNAL ARTICLE
REVIEW

Arrhythmias in the intensive care patient

Hans-Joachim Trappe, Bodo Brandts, Peter Weismueller
Current Opinion in Critical Care 2003, 9 (5): 345-55
14508146

PURPOSE OF REVIEW: Atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, AV-nodal reentry tachycardia with rapid ventricular response, atrial ectopic tachycardia, and preexcitation syndromes combined with atrial fibrillation or ventricular tachyarrhythmias are typical arrhythmias in intensive care patients. Most frequently, the diagnosis of the underlying arrhythmia is possible from the physical examination, the response to maneuvers or drugs, and the 12-lead surface electrocardiogram. In all patients with unstable hemodynamics, immediate DC-cardioversion is indicated. Conversion of atrial fibrillation to sinus rhythm is possible using antiarrhythmic drugs. Amiodarone has a conversion rate in atrial fibrillation of up to 80%. However, caution in the use of short-term administration of intravenous amiodarone in critically ill patients with recent-onset atrial fibrillation is absolutely necessary, and the duration of therapy should not exceed 24 to 48 hours. Ibutilide represents a relatively new class III antiarrhythmic agent that has been reported to have conversion rates of 50% to 70%; it seems that ibutilide is even successful when intravenous amiodarone failed to convert atrial fibrillation.

RECENT FINDINGS: Newer studies compared the outcome of patients with atrial fibrillation and rhythm- or rate-control. Data from these studies (AFFIRM, RACE) clearly showed that rhythm control is not superior to rate control for the prevention of death and morbidity from cardiovascular causes. Therefore, rate-control may be an appropriate therapy in patients with recurrent atrial fibrillation after DC-cardioversion. Acute therapy of atrial flutter in intensive care patients depends on the clinical presentation. Atrial flutter can most often be successfully cardioverted to sinus rhythm with energies less than 50 joules. Ibutilide trials showed efficacy rates of 38-76% for conversion of atrial flutter to sinus rhythm compared with conversion rates of 5-13% when intravenous flecainide, propafenone, or verapamil was administered. In addition, a high dose (2 mg) of ibutilide was more effective than sotalol (1.5 mg/kg) in conversion of atrial flutter to sinus rhythm (70% versus 19%).

SUMMARY: There is general agreement that bystander first aid, defibrillation, and advanced life support is essential for neurologic outcome in patients after cardiac arrest due to ventricular tachyarrhythmias. The best survival rate from cardiac arrest can be achieved only when (1) recognition of early warning signs, (2) activation of the emergency medical services system, (3) basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation, (4) defibrillation, (5) management of the airway and ventilation, and (6) intravenous administration of medications occurs as rapidly as possible. Public access defibrillation, which places automatic external defibrillators in the hands of trained laypersons, seems to be an ideal approach in the treatment of ventricular fibrillation. The use of automatic external defibrillators by basic life support ambulance providers or first responder in early defibrillation programs has been associated with a significant increase in survival rates. Drugs such as lidocaine, procainamide, sotalol, amiodarone, or magnesium were recommended for treatment of ventricular tachyarrhythmias in intensive care patients. Amiodarone is a highly efficacious antiarrhythmic agent for many cardiac arrhythmias, ranging from atrial fibrillation to malignant ventricular tachyarrhythmias, and seems to be superior to other antiarrhythmic agents.

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