Objectives: This study was conducted to identify a subgroup of patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation with an increased risk for cardiogenic embolism by assessing left atrial appendage function.
Background: Patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation have an increased risk for thromboembolic complications. The left atrial appendage is the most likely source for thrombus formation. It is likely that the appendage function (contraction, filling dynamics) is related to the pathogenesis of thrombus formation.
Methods: Twenty-nine patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation (group I) underwent biplane transesophageal echocardiography. The maximal and minimal areas during a cardiac cycle and the peak emptying and filling velocities of the appendage were measured in both scan planes. For comparison, two additional groups were also analyzed. Group II consisted of 12 patients with chronic atrial fibrillation due to significant mitral stenosis, and group III consisted of 30 patients who were in sinus rhythm.
Results: Patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation showed two distinct appendage flow patterns: either well defined peak filling and emptying waves (> or = 25 cm/s) with visible fibrillatory contractions of the appendage wall ("high flow profile") or irregular, very low, peak filling and emptying waves (< 25 cm/s) associated with almost no visible appendage contractions ("low flow profile"). The left atrial appendage function in the first subgroup resembles that seen in patients with sinus rhythm, whereas the appendage function in the latter subgroup resembles more the "static pouch" seen in patients with rheumatic atrial fibrillation. Events suggestive of cardiogenic embolism occurred in six patients from group I, five of whom were in the low flow profile subgroup (p < 0.05). The spontaneous echo contrast phenomenon was observed in 80% of the low flow profile subgroup but in only 5% in the high flow profile subgroup (p < 0.05). Three thrombi confined to the left atrial appendage were detected by transesophageal echocardiography in group I; all three of the patients were in the low flow profile subgroup.
Conclusions: The assessment of left atrial appendage function by transesophageal echocardiography may be helpful to identify subgroups of patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation with an increased risk of thrombus formation.