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Snapshot
  • A 68-year-old male presents with palpitations, lightheadedness, and weakness. These symptoms appear to worsen with increased alcohol intake. Medical history is significant for hypertension being treated with hydrochlorothiazide. On physical exam, the patient appears uncomfortable. There is an irregularly irregular pulse when palpating the radial artery. On cardiac auscultation, the first heart sound (S1) is of variable intensity. There is mild bibasilar crackles on pulmonary auscultation and an absence of peripheral edema.  An electrocardiagram is obtained. 
Introduction
  • A supraventricular tachyarrhythmia secondary to uncoordinated atrial contractions
    • results in an irregularly irregular rhythm
      • non-repetitive pattern in the RR interval
    • may reduce cardiac output
    • may result in thrombus formation in the atrium
    • most common site of origin for ectopic foci is pulmonary veins
  • Pathogenesis
    • usually due to an underlying cause 
      • e.g., atrial enlargement and inflammation or infiltrative disease affecting the atrium
  • Causes include
    • structural abnormalities
      • e.g., left atrial enlargement, mitral and aortic stenosis, mitral and aortic regurgitation, and malignancy
    • conduction abnormalities
      • e.g., Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome
    • medications
      • theophylline and digoxin
    • cardiac functional abnormalities
      • e.g., myocardial infacrtion, pulmonary embolism, and coronary artery disease
    • hyperthyroidism
    • electrolyte disturbances
      • e.g., hypomagnesemia and hypokalemia
    • cardiomyopathies
      • e.g., dilated and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
    • alcohol abuse ("holiday heart syndrome")
    • post-operatively after heart surgery
      • especially after coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG)
  • Epidemiology
    • most common arrhythmia
Presentation
  • Symptoms
    • asymptomatic
    • in symptomatic cases
      • palpitations
      • shortness of breath (suggesting heart failure)
      • lightheadedness
  • Physical exam
    • irregularly irregular pulse
    • focal neurological deficit if this results in an embolic stroke
    • in cases of atrial fibrillation leading to heart failure
      • elevated jugular venous pulse (JVP)
      • bibasilar rales on pulmonary auscultation
      • peripheral edema
Evaluation
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) 
    • irregularly irregular rhythm
    • absent P waves
    • if arrhythmia is not captured on ECG then
      • Holter monitoring in the outpatient setting
        • these patients are hemodynamically stable
      • telemitry in the inpatient setting
  • Transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE)
    • can assess atrial size and ventricular function, thickness, and size
    • can also assess for valvular and pericardial disease, and peak right ventricular pressure
    • transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) is more sensitive in detecting thrombi in the left atrium
  • Laboratory testing
    • thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and free T4 level
    • electrolyte level
Differential
  • Multifocal atrial tachycardia (MAT)
    • commonly seen in patients with pulmonary disease
      • e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Premature atrial contractions (PACs)
  • Atrial flutter
  • Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome
Treatment
  • Hemodynamically unstable patients
    • synchronized cardioversion
  • Hemodynamically stable patients
    • slowing of the ventricular rate
      • patients with new onset atrial fibrillation become symptomatic due to rapid ventricular response (except in cases of stroke)
      • intravenous β-blockers or nondihydropyridine calcium channel blocker
    • long-term management
      • rate control (preferred)
        • β-blocker or nondihydropyridine calcium channel blocker
        • digoxin if the patient is hypotensive 
      • rhythm control
        • antiarrhythmics
          • depends on patient's comorbidities
      • anticoagulation
        • in order to decrease the risk of thromboembolism
        • stroke risk stratification CHA2DS2-VASc score
          • Congestive heart failure = 1 point
          • Hypertension = 1 point
          • Age (75 years or older) = 2 points
          • Diabetes = 1 point
          • Stroke/transient ischemic attack/thromboembolism = 2 point
          • Vascular disease = 1 point
            • e.g., previous myocardial infarction and peripheral artery disease
          • Age (65 - 74 years) = 1 point
          • Sex category (female) = 1 point
        • score of 0 or 1 use
          • aspirin
          • conservative monitoring
        • score of 2 or more use oral anticoagulation
          • dabigatran
          • rivaroxaban
          • apixaban
            • novel anticoagulants contraindicated in renal failure
          • warfarin  
            • international normalized ratio (INR) target of 2-3
            • only warfarin should be used with vascular lesions (eg. mechanical valves)
Prognosis, Prevention, and Complications
  • Prognosis
    • increased risk of stroke
  • Complications
    • atrial mural thrombi emboli to cerebral vessels
      • can cause ischemic stroke and transient ischemic attack
    • atrial thrombus to common iliac artery
      • requires immediate embolectomy to remove occlusion and preserve limb 
 

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