3 Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

May 7th 2016

Patients with atrial fibrillation should also make basic lifestyle changes to promote heart health. These include stopping smoking; limiting alcohol and caffeine ingestion; and staying away from cold and cough medications. Many atrial fibrillation patients may need to stay on medication for the rest of their lives.

Medical Treatment

Medications are typically prescribed for atrial fibrillation to prevent blood clotting. This includes blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin. Beta blockers or calcium channel blockers are often prescribed to control the heart rate. After the regular heart rate is restored and when there is no immediate danger of a stroke, sodium channel blockers and potassium channel blockers can be added to the treatment to bring the heart's rhythm under control.

Nonsurgical Treatment

Doctors sometimes use electrical cardioversion to correct the heart rate. In this procedure, paddles or patches placed on the chest deliver an electrical shock that disrupts the heart's abnormal electrical activity. In many cases, the heart then returns to a regular heart rhythm. However, for some people, this restoration is only temporary, and the procedure must either be repeated or the patient must move on to the next level of treatment. Some versions of this treatment add anti-arrhythmic drugs orally or intravenously to help restore normal heart rate. These medications are typically needed indefinitely, and the risk of another atrial fibrillation after electrical cardioversion remains high.

Another type of nonsurgical treatment for atrial fibrillation is ablation, which is typically performed after medications and electrical cardioversion have failed to regulate the heart's rhythm. In this treatment, a physician uses an electrical catheter to map the heart, and then destroys the areas of the heart that are not functioning properly. Either radio frequencies, lasers or cryotherapy is used to scar the malfunctioning tissue so it no longer sends abnormal signals throughout the heart. When this minimally invasive procedure is successful, the heart returns to its regular rhythm with a short recovery period.

Surgical Treatment

If medication and nonsurgical treatment have been tried but failed to correct repeated instances of atrial fibrillation, doctors may turn to surgical treatment. The typical surgical treatment for the condition is installation of a pacemaker, an electrical device that regulates the heartbeat. Pacemaker insertion is often accompanied by ablation to help deaden the problematic areas of the heart. Pacemakers are most often prescribed for patients whose heart rates are too slow. They work by sensing when the heart is beating too quickly or too slowly, and they send out electrical impulses to restore proper rate and rhythm. Pacemaker surgery is risky and can lead to further complications, so it is treated as a last resort.

In some otherwise untreatable cases of atrial fibrillation, surgeons perform open-heart Maze surgery. This surgery involves making cuts in the upper chambers of the heart, and then stitching them together so scar tissue forms. The scar tissue acts in the same way as dead tissue created through ablation procedures, interrupting the abnormal electrical impulses being transmitted through the heart and allowing the heart to return to a normal rhythm.

Conclusion

Atrial fibrillation, the most common type of heart arrhythmia, occurs when the heart's upper chambers quiver due to abnormal electrical impulses. This symptom is sometimes accompanied by rapid heartbeat in the lower chambers of the heart, a serious complication that can have grave consequences. Treatment of atrial fibrillation focuses on restoring the heart's normal rhythm and preventing blood clots that can lead to a stroke or heart attack. The choice of treatment varies depending on how long the patient has experienced atrial fibrillation and the seriousness of the symptoms.

Sources

Heart.org "Treatment options of atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF)" http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/Treatment-Options-of-Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib-or-AF_UCM_423780_Article.jsp
Healthline.com "What are my treatment options for AFib?" http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/treatment-options-afib
MayoClinic.org "Atrial fibrillation" http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atrial-fibrillation/basics/treatment/con-20027014

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