Transesophageal echocardiography before and during direct current cardioversion of atrial fibrillation: evidence for "atrial stunning" as a mechanism of thromboembolic complications

J Am Coll Cardiol. 1994 Feb;23(2):307-16. doi: 10.1016/0735-1097(94)90412-x.


Objectives: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the usefulness of transesophageal echocardiography before electrical cardioversion in patients with atrial fibrillation and to determine the mechanism of thromboembolism after cardioversion.

Background: Thromboembolic complications after electrical cardioversion of atrial fibrillation have been attributed to the dislodgment of preexistent left atrial thrombus during the resumption of atrial contraction. Transesophageal echocardiography has been proposed as a method of screening patients for left atrial thrombus before cardioversion.

Methods: Seventy transesophageal echocardiographic studies were performed in 66 patients, predominantly with nonvalvular atrial fibrillation, before direct current cardioversion. In addition, transesophageal echocardiography was performed during the cardioversion procedure in 15 patients and immediately after in 1 patient.

Results: Left atrial thrombus was detected in one patient (1.4%), and cardioversion was cancelled. Thromboembolic complications occurred in 4 patients, none of whom had evidence of left atrial thrombus before cardioversion. Within 10 s of successful cardioversion, left atrial spontaneous echo contrast appeared in five patients, increased in one patient and was unchanged in nine patients. Patients with new or increased spontaneous echo contrast had more impaired atrial contraction and slower initial heart rates after cardioversion than those without. Left ventricular contraction was also impaired transiently by cardioversion.

Conclusions: Transesophageal echocardiographic detection of left atrial thrombus before direct current cardioversion is important but infrequent in patients with predominantly nonvalvular atrial fibrillation. The occurrence of thromboembolic complications in the absence of demonstrable left atrial thrombus and the new development of spontaneous echo contrast in association with the transient atrial dysfunction ("stunning") caused by cardioversion suggest that cardioversion may promote new thrombus formation, in which case all patients should receive full anticoagulant therapy at the time of cardioversion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anticoagulants / therapeutic use
  • Atrial Fibrillation / diagnostic imaging*
  • Atrial Fibrillation / therapy
  • Atrial Function / physiology*
  • Echocardiography, Transesophageal*
  • Electric Countershock* / methods
  • Embolism / etiology*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Female
  • Heart Atria / diagnostic imaging
  • Heart Diseases / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Thrombosis / diagnostic imaging*
  • Time Factors


  • Anticoagulants