Diagnosis and Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

Am Fam Physician. 2016 Sep 15;94(6):442-52.


Atrial fibrillation is a supraventricular arrhythmia that adversely affects cardiac function and increases the risk of stroke. It is the most common arrhythmia and a major source of morbidity and mortality; its prevalence increases with age. Pulse rate is sensitive, but not specific, for diagnosis, and suspected atrial fibrillation should be confirmed with 12-lead electrocardiography. Because normal electrocardiographic findings do not rule out atrial fibrillation, home monitoring is recommended if there is clinical suspicion of arrhythmia despite normal test results. Treatment is based on decisions made regarding when to convert to normal sinus rhythm vs. when to treat with rate control, and, in either case, how to best reduce the risk of stroke. For most patients, rate control is preferred to rhythm control. Ablation therapy is used to destroy abnormal foci responsible for atrial fibrillation. Anticoagulation reduces the risk of stroke while increasing the risk of bleeding. The CHA2DS2-VASc scoring system assesses the risk of stroke, with a score of 2 or greater indicating a need for anticoagulation. The HAS-BLED score estimates the risk of bleeding. Scores of 3 or greater indicate high risk. Warfarin, dabigatran, factor Xa inhibitors (e.g., rivaroxaban, apixaban, edoxaban), and aspirin are options for stroke prevention. Selection of therapy should be individualized based on risks and potential benefits, cost, and patient preference. Left atrial appendage obliteration is an option for reducing stroke risk. Two implantable devices used to occlude the appendage, the Watchman and the Amplatzer Cardiac Plug, appear to be as effective as warfarin in preventing stroke, but they are invasive. Another percutaneous approach to occlusion, wherein the left atrium is closed off using the Lariat, is also available, but data on its long-term effectiveness and safety are still limited. Surgical treatments for atrial fibrillation are reserved for patients who are undergoing cardiac surgery for other reasons.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Arrhythmia Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anticoagulants / therapeutic use
  • Atrial Fibrillation / diagnosis*
  • Atrial Fibrillation / therapy*
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures
  • Catheter Ablation
  • Humans


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Anti-Arrhythmia Agents
  • Anticoagulants