Early Cardioversion of Atrial Fibrillation Guided by Transesophageal Echocardiography

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US Cardiology 2004;2004:1(1):1-4

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Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most commonly sustained arrhythmia with a prevalence of 0.4% in the general population1-4 affecting 2.3 million people in the US.5 The prevalence increases with age being <1% in persons younger than 60 years of age to >8% in those older than 80 years.1,5-8 The incidence ranges from 0.2% per year for men 30 to 39 years of age to 2.3% per year in men 80 to 89 years of age.6,9 Men are twice as likely to have AF with age as women.10 Most patients with AF have symptomatic AF ranging from irregular palpitations to fatigue. Patients with structural heart disease may present with decompensated heart failure.

Risk of Stroke with AF

Patients with AF have an increased risk for thromboembolism. The relative risk for stroke is increased two- to seven-fold in patients with non-rheumatic AF when compared with age-matched controls.6,8,9,11,12 The absolute risk for stroke ranges between 1% and 5% per year-depending mainly on age, the presence of structural heart disease, and other clinical characteristics.6,8,11,12 Electrical cardioversion is usually used in an attempt to restore sinus rhythm in patients with AF especially in those with symptoms. This procedure, however, is associated with an increased risk of stroke that may result if left atrial thrombi are dislodged when sinus rhythm is restored.13-15 It is estimated that the risk for thromboembolism after cardioversion is about 0.33% in those who received anticoagulation before cardioversion and 5.00% in those who did not.16,17 This risk was similar in both pharmacologic cardioversion or DCC18. There are two proposed mechanisms responsible for the thromboembolic risk associated with cardioversion of AF;

  • Embolization of thrombi in the left atrium or the left atrial appendage that are present before conversion once atrial contraction is restored.
  • Left atrial stunning after conversion, with thrombi developing after conversion and embolizing as the atrium recovers contractility.19-22

The current ACCP conventional guidelines for anticoagulation in patients with AF for >2 days requires three weeks of empirical anticoagulation before cardioversion followed by four weeks of warfarin therapy after cardioversion.23,24 Pathophysiologically, such a strategy could stabilize preexisting thrombi, prevent new thrombus formation, and enhance the resorption and elimination of preexisting thrombi. No clinical trials have directly compared this strategy without anticoagulation or with other strategies of anticoagulation involving varying intensities or duration.

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