Atrial fibrillation (main)


  • Chronic and paroxysmal a-fib are associated with thrombus formation

Atrial fibrillation categories[1]

Atrial Fibrillation Category Definition
  • Terminates spontaneously or with intervention within 7 days of onset.
  • Episodes may recur with variable frequency.
  • Continuous sustained >7 days
Long-standing persistent
  • Continuous >12 mo in duration.
  • Used when the patient and clinician make a joint decision to stop further attempts to restore and/or maintain sinus rhythm.
  • Acceptance represents a therapeutic attitude on the part of the patient and clinician rather than an inherent pathophysiological attribute.
  • May change as symptoms, efficacy of therapeutic interventions, and patient and clinician preferences evolve.
  • In the absence of rheumatic mitral stenosis, a mechanical or bioprosthetic heart valve, or mitral valve repair.

Causes of atrial fibrillation

  • Cardiac (atrial enlargement)
    • Hypertension
    • Ischemic heart disease
    • Rheumatic heart disease
      • Valvular heart disease (any lesion that leads to significant stenosis or regurgitation)
  • Noncardiac (increased automaticity)

Clinical Features



  • Irregularly irregular heart rate

Differential Diagnosis

Narrow-complex tachycardia

Wide-complex tachycardia

Assume any wide-complex tachycardia is ventricular tachycardia until proven otherwise (it is safer to incorrectly assume a ventricular dysrhythmia than supraventricular tachycardia with abberancy)

^Fixed or rate-related



ED Work-Up

  • ECG[2]
  • Eval for ACS only in:
    • Patient with ECG changes suggestive of ischemia, hypotension, angina
    • A fib is rarely only manifestation of ACS, although RVR and hypotension can provoke demand ischemia
  • Also consider:
    • Digoxin level (if appropriate)
    • Chem-10
    • Magnesium level
    • TSH & free T4 (Afib increased in subclinical hyperthyroidism)

ECG Patterns

3 patterns on ECG:

  1. Typical
    • Irregularly, irregular R waves
    • QRS rate 140-160/min
  2. Large fibrillatory waves
    • May look like flutter waves
      • Unlike a-flutter, the fibrillatory waves are irregular
  3. Slow, regular A-fib
    • Due to complete AV block with escape rhythm
  • Ischemic changes?
  • Rate > 250? (think preexcitation)


See atrial fibrillation with RVR for emergent treatment

Rate vs. Rhythm Control

  • Consider rhythm control for younger patients (<65 years old) with new or paroxysmal episode[3]
    • If <48 hours of symptoms, do not need to anticoagulate prior to rhythm control (may perform in ED)[4]
    • If >48 hours of symptoms, may have rhythm control as out patient referral
  • Rate control for all others or cardioversion failure
    • General principal - IV medications for immediate rate control followed by PO medications for sustained rate control
    • Beta-blocker
      • Metoprolol 5 mg IV q 5 min (max 3 doses) followed by 25-100 mg PO
    • Calcium channel blocker
      • Diltiazem 0.25 mg/kg to 0.35 mg/kg IV (20 mg typical starting dose), can follow with 25 mg IV as second dose if needed
      • Followed by PO dose 60-120 mg
      • If unable to get sustained response with IV push, consider diltiazem gtt
    • Digoxin
      • Indicated if patient hypotensive and cannot get AV nodal blockade or if patient has advanced heart failure
      • Typical digitizing dose 500 mcg then 250 mcg q4hx 2 for total dose of 1000 mcg
      • Requires renal dosing if patient has impaired renal function
    • Amiodarone
      • Indicated if patient has hypotension or advanced heart failure, usually second line after digoxin
      • Typical dosing 150 mg IV x 10 min then 1 mg/min x 6 hours then 0.5 mg/minx 18 hours
      • Amiodarone can convert patient to sinus rhythm. Consider simultaneously starting empiric anticoagulation if high thromboembolism risk, see below

Anticoagulation Therapy

  • ACCP Recommendations
    • In patients with AF, including those with paroxysmal AF, with only one of the risk factors listed immediately above, we recommend long-term antithrombotic therapy (Grade 1A), either as anticoagulation with an oral VKA, such as warfarin (Grade 1A), or as aspirin, at a dose of 75-325 mg/d (Grade 1B)[5]
    • In patients with AF, including those with paroxysmal AF, who have two or more of the risk factors we recommend long-term anticoagulation with an oral VKA (Grade 1A).[5]
  • CCS Recommendations
    • Oral anticoagulants are recommended for all AF patients aged 65 or older or who have any one of the traditional CHADS2 risk factors of stroke, hypertension, heart failure, or diabetes (remember as CHADS-65). Otherwise, patients with a history of coronary artery disease or arterial vascular disease should be prescribed ASA. CCS recommends that the first choice for oral anticoagulation should be the novel direct-acting oral anticoagulants (i.e. NOACs, for non-valvular AF). The big paradigm change is that ED physicians should prescribe OACs to at-risk AF patients before they leave the ED.[6]

CHADS2-VAsc Score

Risk Factor Points
Previous stroke/TIA2
Vascular disease (e.g. IHD, PVD)1
Female sex1
≥ 75 years old2
65 to 74 years old1
  • Score 0: consider no treatment or ASA
  • Score 1: consider warfarin or ASA
  • Score 2-6: consider warfarin (INR goal = 2-3)
  • All patients with significant valvular disease should be on anticoagulation


Used to assess 1 yr risk of bleeding on OAC medications

Risk Factor Point
Abnormal renal and/or hepatic function1 point each
Bleeding tendency/predisposition1
Labile INR on warfarin1
Elderly (age >65 years)1
Drugs (aspirin or NSAIDs) and/or alcohol1 point each
  • Score 1: 1.0 bleeds per 100 patient-years
  • Score 2: 1.9 bleeds per 100 patient-years
  • Score 3: 3.7 bleeds per 100 patient-years
  • Score 4: 8.7 bleeds per 100 patient-years
  • Score 5-9: Insufficient Data


Similar outcomes for Canadian vs. American strategies, despite lower admission rates in Canada[8]


  • "Limit hospital admission to highly symptomatic patients in whom adequate rate control cannot be achieved"[9]


Indications for hospitalization:

  • Patient with acute heart failure or hypotension after rhythm or rate control
  • AF secondary to hypertension, infection, COPD exacerbation, PE, ACS/MI
  • Age > 60 (high risk of thromboembolism, more likely to have comorbidities)
  • Initiation of heparin or other anticoagulant
  • If considering ablation of accessory pathway in patient with AF
  • Symptomatic recurrence in the ED
  • Hemodynamic instability

Indications for discharge (low-risk patients): Discharge with urgent cardiology follow up

  • <60 years old
  • No significant comorbid disease
  • No clinical suspicion for PE or MI
  • Conversion in ED or rate control


  • Hemodynamic compromise
    • A-fib lowers CO by 20-30%
    • Impaired coronary blood flow
  • Arrhythmogenesis
  • Arterial thromboembolism

See Also


  1. 2014 AHA/ACC/HRS Guideline for the Management of Patients With Atrial Fibrillation: Executive Summary. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(21):2246-2280. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.03.021
  2. 2014 AHA/ACC/HRS Guideline for the Management of Patients With Atrial Fibrillation: Executive Summary. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(21):2246-2280. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.03.021
  3. Atrial Fibrillation: Would You Prefer a Pill or 150 Joules? Ann Emerg Med. 2015;66:655-657.
  4. EBQ:48hr Cardioversion for Afib]]
  5. Singer DE et al. Antithrombotic therapy in atrial fibrillation: American College of Chest Physicians Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines (8th Edition).Chest. 2008 Jun;133(6 Suppl):546S-592S
  6. Verma A, et al. 2014 Focused Update of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society Guidelines for the Management of Atrial Fibrillation Canadian Journal of Cardiology 30 (2014) 1114e1130
  7. Pisters R, Lane DA, Nieuwlaat R, et al. A novel user-friendly score (HAS-BLED) to assess 1-year risk of major bleeding in patients with atrial fibrillation: the Euro Heart Survey. Chest 2010; 138:1093.
  8. Rising KL. Home is Where the Heart Is. Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2013;62(6):578-579
  9. Stiell, et al. Atrial Fibrilation Guidelines. Canadian Cardiovascular Society Atrial Fibrillation Guidelines 2010: management of recent-onset atrial fibrilation and flutter in the emergency department. Can J Cardiolol. 2011;27:38-46
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