Digitalis for treatment of congestive heart failure in patients in sinus rhythm

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(2):CD002901. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002901.pub2.


Background: Digitalis glycosides have been in clinical use in the treatment of congestive heart failure (CHF) for more than 200 years. In recent years several trials have been conducted to address concerns about efficacy and toxicity. Although a systematic review of the literature was published in 1990, an update is required to include more current trials.

Objectives: To examine the effectiveness of digitalis glycosides in treating CHF in patients with normal sinus rhythm. To examine the effect of digitalis in patients taking diuretics, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, and beta-blockers; patients with varying severity and duration of disease; patients with prior exposure to digitalis vs. no prior exposure; and patients with "CHF due to systolic dysfunction" vs. "CHF with preserved systolic function."

Search strategy: The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) 2003 Issue 4, MEDLINE (1966 to December 2003) and EMBASE (1990 to December 2003) were searched. Dissertation Abstracts and annual meeting abstracts of the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and European Society of Cardiology were also searched from 1996-2003. In addition, reference lists provided by the pharmaceutical industry (Glaxo Wellcome Inc.) were searched.

Selection criteria: Included were randomized placebo-controlled trials of 20 or more adult patients of either sex with symptomatic CHF who were studied for seven weeks or more. Excluded were trials in which the prevalence of atrial fibrillation was 2% or greater, or in which any arrhythmia that might compromise cardiac function or any potentially reversible cause of CHF such as acute ischemic heart disease or myocarditis was present.

Data collection and analysis: Articles selected from the searches described above were evaluated as a joint effort of the coauthors. The staff of the Cochrane Heart Group ran searches on the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials.

Main results: Thirteen articles meeting the defined criteria were identified, and major endpoints of mortality, hospitalization, and clinical status, based respectively upon 8, 4, and 12 of these selected studies, were recorded and analyzed. The data show that there is no evidence of a difference in mortality between treatment and control groups, whereas digitalis therapy is associated with a lower rate of hospitalization and of clinical deterioration.

Reviewers' conclusions: The literature indicates that digitalis has a useful role in the treatment of patients with CHF who are in normal sinus rhythm.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiotonic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Digitalis Glycosides / therapeutic use*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Heart Failure / drug therapy*
  • Heart Failure / mortality
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Heart Rate*
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Cardiotonic Agents
  • Digitalis Glycosides