Diagnosis

To diagnose atrial fibrillation, your doctor may review your signs and symptoms, review your medical history, and conduct a physical examination. Your doctor may order several tests to diagnose your condition, including:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG uses small sensors (electrodes) attached to your chest and arms to sense and record electrical signals as they travel through your heart. This test is a primary tool for diagnosing atrial fibrillation.
  • Holter monitor. This portable ECG device is carried in your pocket or worn on a belt or shoulder strap. It records your heart's activity for 24 hours or longer, which provides your doctor with a prolonged look at your heart rhythms.
  • Event recorder. This portable ECG device is intended to monitor your heart activity over a few weeks to a few months. You activate it only when you experience symptoms of a fast heart rate.

    When you feel symptoms, you push a button, and an ECG strip of the preceding few minutes and following few minutes is recorded. This permits your doctor to determine your heart rhythm at the time of your symptoms.

  • Echocardiogram. In this noninvasive test, sound waves are used to produce a video image of your heart. Sound waves are directed at your heart from a wand-like device (transducer) that's held on your chest (transthoracic echocardiogram). The sound waves that bounce off your heart are reflected through your chest wall and processed electronically to provide video images of your heart in motion, to detect underlying structural heart disease.

    Doctors may conduct a type of echocardiogram in which they insert a flexible tube with a transducer attached and guide it down your throat into your esophagus (transesophageal echocardiography). In this test, sound waves are used to produce images of your heart, which may be seen more clearly with this type of echocardiogram. Doctors may use this test to detect blood clots that may have formed in your heart.

  • Blood tests. These help your doctor rule out thyroid problems or other substances in your blood that may lead to atrial fibrillation.
  • Stress test. Also called exercise testing, stress testing involves running tests on your heart while you're exercising.
  • Chest X-ray. X-ray images help your doctor see the condition of your lungs and heart. Your doctor can also use an X-ray to diagnose conditions other than atrial fibrillation that may explain your signs and symptoms.

Treatment

The atrial fibrillation treatment that is most appropriate for you will depend on how long you've had atrial fibrillation, how bothersome your symptoms are and the underlying cause of your atrial fibrillation. Generally, the treatment goals for atrial fibrillation are to:

  • Reset the rhythm or control the rate
  • Prevent blood clots
  • Decrease the risk of strokes

The strategy you and your doctor choose depends on many factors, including whether you have other problems with your heart and if you're able to take medications that can control your heart rhythm. In some cases, you may need more invasive treatment, such as medical procedures using catheters or surgery.

In some people, a specific event or an underlying condition, such as a thyroid disorder, may trigger atrial fibrillation. Treating the condition causing atrial fibrillation may help relieve your heart rhythm problems. If your symptoms are bothersome or if this is your first episode of atrial fibrillation, your doctor may attempt to reset the rhythm.

Resetting your heart's rhythm

Ideally, to treat atrial fibrillation, the heart rate and rhythm are reset to normal. To correct your condition, doctors may be able to reset your heart to its regular rhythm (sinus rhythm) using a procedure called cardioversion, depending on the underlying cause of atrial fibrillation and how long you've had it.

Cardioversion can be conducted in two ways:

  • Electrical cardioversion. In this brief procedure, an electrical shock is delivered to your heart through paddles or patches placed on your chest. The shock stops your heart's electrical activity momentarily.

    When your heart begins again, the hope is that it resumes its normal rhythm. The procedure is performed during sedation, so you shouldn't feel the electric shock. Your doctor may give you medications to help restore normal sinus rhythm (anti-arrhythmics) prior to the procedure.

  • Cardioversion with drugs. This form of cardioversion uses medications called anti-arrhythmics to help restore normal sinus rhythm. Depending on your heart condition, your doctor may recommend trying intravenous or oral medications to return your heart to normal rhythm.

    This is often done in the hospital with continuous monitoring of your heart rate. If your heart rhythm returns to normal, your doctor often will prescribe the same anti-arrhythmic medication or a similar one to try to prevent more spells of atrial fibrillation.

Before cardioversion, you may be given a blood-thinning medication such as warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) for several weeks to reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke. Unless the episode of atrial fibrillation lasted less than 48 hours, you'll need to take warfarin for at least four weeks after cardioversion to prevent a blood clot from forming even after your heart is back in normal rhythm.

You may have a test called transesophageal echocardiography — which can tell your doctor if you have any heart blood clots — just before cardioversion.

Maintaining a normal heart rhythm

After electrical cardioversion, your doctor may prescribe anti-arrhythmic medications to help prevent future episodes of atrial fibrillation. Medications may include:

  • Dofetilide (Tikosyn)
  • Flecainide
  • Propafenone (Rythmol)
  • Amiodarone (Cordarone, Pacerone)
  • Sotalol (Betapace, Sorine)

Although these drugs may help maintain a normal heart rhythm, they can cause side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Rarely, they may cause ventricular arrhythmias — life-threatening rhythm disturbances originating in the heart's lower chambers. These medications may be needed indefinitely. Even with medications, there is a chance of another episode of atrial fibrillation.

Heart rate control

You may be prescribed medications to control your heart rate and restore it to a normal rate. Heart rate control can be achieved through several medications.

The medication digoxin (Lanoxin) may control heart rate at rest, but not as well during activity. Most people require additional or alternative medications, such as calcium channel blockers or beta blockers.

Beta blockers may cause side effects such as low blood pressure (hypotension). Calcium channel blockers can also cause side effects, and may need to be avoided if you have heart failure or low blood pressure.

Catheter and surgical procedures

Sometimes medications or cardioversion to control atrial fibrillation doesn't work. In those cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure to destroy the area of heart tissue that's causing the erratic electrical signals and restore your heart to a normal rhythm. These options can include:

  • Catheter ablation. In many people who have atrial fibrillation and an otherwise normal heart, atrial fibrillation is caused by rapidly discharging triggers, or "hot spots." These hot spots are like abnormal pacemaker cells that fire so rapidly that the upper chambers of your heart quiver instead of beating efficiently.

    In catheter ablation, a doctor inserts long, thin tubes (catheters) into your groin and guides them through blood vessels to your heart. Electrodes at the catheter tips can use radiofrequency energy, extreme cold (cryotherapy) or heat to destroy these hot spots, scarring the tissue so that the erratic signals are normalized. This corrects the arrhythmia without the need for medications or implantable devices.

  • Surgical maze procedure. The maze procedure is conducted during an open-heart surgery. Using a scalpel, doctors create several precise incisions in the upper chambers of your heart to create a pattern of scar tissue.

    Because scar tissue doesn't carry electricity, it interferes with stray electrical impulses that cause atrial fibrillation. Radiofrequency or cryotherapy also can be used to create the scars, and there are several variations of the surgical maze technique.

    These procedures have a high success rate, but atrial fibrillation may recur. Some people may need catheter ablation or other treatment if atrial fibrillation recurs.

    Because the surgical maze procedure requires open-heart surgery, it's generally reserved for people who don't respond to other treatments or when it can be done during other necessary heart surgery, such as coronary artery bypass surgery or heart valve repair.

  • Atrioventricular (AV) node ablation. If medications or other forms of catheter ablation don't work, or if you have side effects or are not a good candidate for other procedures, AV node ablation may be another option. The procedure involves applying radiofrequency energy to the pathway connecting the upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) of your heart (AV node) through a catheter to destroy this small area of tissue.

    The procedure prevents the atria from sending electrical impulses to the ventricles. The atria continue to fibrillate, though. A pacemaker is then implanted to keep the ventricles beating properly. After AV node ablation, you'll need to continue to take blood-thinning medications to reduce the risk of stroke because your heart rhythm is still atrial fibrillation.

Preventing blood clots

Many people with atrial fibrillation or those who are undergoing certain treatments for atrial fibrillation are at especially high risk of blood clots that can lead to a stroke. The risk is even higher if other heart disease is present along with atrial fibrillation.

Anticoagulants

Your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants) such as:

  • Warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven). Warfarin may be prescribed to prevent blood clots. If you're prescribed warfarin, carefully follow your doctor's instructions. Warfarin is a powerful medication that may cause dangerous bleeding. You'll need to have regular blood tests to monitor warfarin's effects.
  • Newer anticoagulants. Several newer blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants) are available. These medications are shorter acting than warfarin and don't require monitoring. Also, these medications are not approved for people who have mechanical heart valves. It's very important to take these medications exactly as prescribed.

    Dabigatran (Pradaxa) is an anticoagulant medication that's as effective as warfarin at preventing blood clots that can lead to strokes, and doesn't require blood tests to make sure you're getting the proper dose.

    You shouldn't take dabigatran if you have a mechanical heart valve due to an increased risk of stroke or heart attack. Talk to your doctor about taking dabigatran as an alternative to warfarin if you're concerned about your risk of stroke.

    Rivaroxaban (Xarelto) is another anticoagulant medication that's as effective as warfarin for preventing strokes. Rivaroxaban is a once-daily medication. Like any other anticoagulant, follow your doctor's dosing instructions carefully and don't stop taking rivaroxaban without talking to your doctor first.

    Apixaban (Eliquis) is another anticoagulant medication that's as effective as warfarin for preventing strokes.

Left atrial appendage closure

Your doctor may also consider a procedure called left atrial appendage closure.

In this procedure, doctors insert a catheter through a vein in the leg and guide it to the upper right heart chamber (right atrium). Doctors then make a small hole in the wall between the upper heart chambers and guide the catheter to the upper left heart chamber (left atrium). A device called a left atrial appendage closure device is then inserted through the catheter to close a small sac (appendage) in the left atrium.

This may reduce the risk of blood clots in certain people with atrial fibrillation, as many blood clots that occur in atrial fibrillation form in the left atrial appendage. People who may be candidates for this procedure include those who don't have heart valve problems, who have an increased risk of blood clots and bleeding, and who are aren't able to take anticoagulants or they aren't effective. Your doctor will evaluate you and determine if you're a candidate for the procedure.

Many people have spells of atrial fibrillation and don't even know it — so you may need lifelong anticoagulants even after your rhythm has been restored to normal.

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

Lifestyle and home remedies

You may need to make lifestyle changes that improve the overall health of your heart, especially to prevent or treat conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Your doctor may suggest several lifestyle changes, including:

  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Eat a healthy diet that's low in salt and solid fats and rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise daily and increase your physical activity.
  • Quit smoking. If you smoke and can't quit on your own, talk to your doctor about strategies or programs to help you break a smoking habit.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control. Make lifestyle changes and take medications as prescribed to correct high blood pressure (hypertension) or high cholesterol.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
  • Maintain follow-up care. Take your medications as prescribed and have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor. Tell your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

Preparing for your appointment

If you think you may have atrial fibrillation, it is critical that you make an appointment with your family doctor. If atrial fibrillation is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective. However, you may be referred to a doctor trained in heart conditions (cardiologist).

Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot to discuss, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your dietary intake. You may need to do this if your doctor orders blood tests.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to atrial fibrillation.
  • Write down key personal information, including any family history of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure or diabetes, and any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  • Take a family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand and remember all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For atrial fibrillation, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
  • What are other possible causes for my symptoms or condition?
  • What kinds of tests will I need?
  • What's the most appropriate treatment?
  • What foods should I eat or avoid?
  • What's an appropriate level of physical activity?
  • How often should I be screened for heart disease or other complications of atrial fibrillation?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
  • I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover seeing a specialist? (You may need to ask your insurance provider directly for information about coverage.)
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend visiting?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may save time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?

Atrial fibrillation care at Mayo Clinic

Aug. 12, 2017
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