Thromboembolism is a severe complication in atrial fibrillation. This overview presents thromboembolic disease as a single entity, ranging from stroke through mesenteric ischemia to acute limb ischemia. The PubMed, Embase, and Cochrane databases were systematically searched for the terms "atrial fibrillation" and "thromboembolism" in reports published from January 1986 to September 2009. The information of 10 evidence-based practice guideline documents and 61 further sources was systematically extracted. In atrial fibrillation, the average annual stroke risk is increased by 2.3% (lethality 30%). The annual incidence of acute mesenteric ischemia is 0.14% (lethality 70%), and that of acute limb ischemia is 0.4% (lethality 16%). In total, approximately 80% of embolism-related deaths are from stroke and 20% from other systemic thromboembolism. The ischemic symptoms generally have an acute onset but may mimic other diseases, particularly in mesenteric ischemia. Early diagnosis and treatment can limit or even prevent tissue infarction. Guideline-recommended therapy with aspirin or warfarin reduces the thromboembolic risk. Suitable patients may optimize their warfarin therapy by self-monitoring of the international normalized ratio (INR). New oral and parenteral anticoagulants with more stable pharmacokinetics are being developed. In conclusion, atrial fibrillation predisposes to thromboembolism. If ischemic stroke or systemic thromboembolism occurs, early diagnosis and treatment can improve outcomes. The thromboembolic risks are reduced by guideline-adherent antithrombotic therapy with warfarin or aspirin. Future directions may include self-monitoring of the international normalized ratio and novel anticoagulants.
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