Pharmacologic management of atrial fibrillation: current therapeutic strategies

Am Heart J. 2001 Feb;141(2 Suppl):S15-21. doi: 10.1067/mhj.2001.109952.


Background: Atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common form of sustained arrhythmia, is associated with a frightening risk of embolic complications, tachycardia-related ventricular dysfunction, and often disabling symptoms. Pharmacologic therapy is the treatment used most commonly to restore and maintain sinus rhythm, to prevent recurrences, or to control ventricular response rate.

Methods: This article reviews published data on pharmacologic treatment and discusses alternative systems to classify AF and to choose appropriate pharmacologic therapy.

Results: AF is either paroxysmal or chronic. Attacks of paroxysmal AF can differ in duration, frequency, and functional tolerance. In the new classification system described, 3 clinical aspects of paroxysmal AF are distinguished on the basis of their implications for therapy. Chronic AF usually occurs in association with clinical conditions that cause atrial distention. The risk of chronic AF is significantly increased by the presence of congestive heart failure or rheumatic heart disease. Mortality rate is greater among patients with chronic AF regardless of the presence of coexisting cardiac disease. The various options available for the treatment of chronic AF include restoration of sinus rhythm or control of ventricular rate. Cardioversion may be accomplished with pharmacologic or electrical treatment. For patients in whom cardioversion is not indicated or who have not responded to this therapy, antiarrhythmic agents used to control ventricular response rate include nondihydropyridine calcium antagonists, digoxin, or beta-blockers. For patients who are successfully cardioverted, sodium channel blockers or potassium channel blockers such as sotalol, amiodarone, or a pure class III agent such as dofetilide, a selective potassium channel blocker, may be used to prevent recurrent AF to maintain normal sinus rhythm.

Conclusions: The ultimate choice of the antiarrhythmic drug will depend on the presence or absence of structural heart disease. An additional concern with chronic AF is the risk of arterial embolization resulting from atrial stasis and the formation of thrombi. In patients with chronic AF the risk of embolic stroke is increased 6-fold. Therefore anticoagulant therapy should be considered in patients at high risk for embolization. Selection of the appropriate treatment should be based on the concepts recently developed by the Sicilian Gambit Group (based on the specific channels blocked by the antiarrhythmic agent) and on clinical experience gained over the years with antiarrhythmic agents. For example, termination of AF is best accomplished with either a sodium channel blocker (class I agent) or a potassium channel blocker (class III agent). In contrast, ventricular response rate is readily controlled by a beta-blocker (propranolol) or a calcium channel blocker (verapamil). Alternatively, antiarrhythmic drug therapy may be chosen based on the Vaughan-Williams classification, which identifies the cellular electrophysiologic effects of the drug.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / administration & dosage
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Arrhythmia Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Arrhythmia Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Atrial Fibrillation / complications
  • Atrial Fibrillation / drug therapy*
  • Atrial Fibrillation / physiopathology
  • Calcium Channel Blockers / administration & dosage
  • Calcium Channel Blockers / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Digoxin / administration & dosage
  • Digoxin / therapeutic use
  • Dihydropyridines / administration & dosage
  • Dihydropyridines / therapeutic use
  • Drug Administration Routes
  • Electrocardiography / drug effects
  • Embolism / etiology
  • Embolism / prevention & control
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Prognosis
  • Propranolol / administration & dosage
  • Propranolol / therapeutic use
  • Secondary Prevention
  • Tachycardia, Paroxysmal / complications
  • Tachycardia, Paroxysmal / drug therapy
  • Tachycardia, Paroxysmal / physiopathology
  • Verapamil / administration & dosage
  • Verapamil / therapeutic use


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Anti-Arrhythmia Agents
  • Calcium Channel Blockers
  • Dihydropyridines
  • Digoxin
  • 1,4-dihydropyridine
  • Propranolol
  • Verapamil