Treating Atrial Fibrillation: Options You Should Know About

Proper treatment is necessary to reduce your risk of stroke.

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Not all irregular heartbeats are life-threatening, but atrial fibrillation is a common heart problem that can lead to stroke, heart failure, and other serious heart-related conditions. Atrial fibrillation (AFib) leads to a rapid, fluttering heartbeat that makes the heart muscle pump less effectively. (Learn more about what atrial fibrillation is here.)

Treatment for atrial fibrillation has two primary goals: preventing stroke and reducing AFib symptoms.

Treatment Options to Prevent Stroke with Atrial Fibrillation

AFib increases your chances of having a stroke by four to six times, so preventing a stroke is an important and life-saving aspect of treating AFib.

The primary method of preventing stroke involves taking anticoagulants, better known as blood thinners, which stop blood clots from forming. Common types of blood thinners include warfarin and the newer class of novel oral anticoagulants (NOACs).

Treatment Options to Reduce Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

Not all AFib patients experience symptoms, but for those who do, doctors may try rhythm or rate control to reduce symptoms.

  • Rhythm control aims to get the heart out of the abnormal rhythm. Anti-arrhythmic medications may help even out irregular heartbeats, but current options are only about 50 percent effective.

  • Rate control lowers the heart rate to reduce AFib symptoms like palpitations. Current medications for rate control include beta blockers and calcium channel blockers. In addition to slowing heart rate, calcium channel blockers also reduce the strength of the heart’s contraction.

Two other AFib treatment methods doctors may use include cardioversion and ablation. A cardioversion, also known as a rhythm reset, is an electric shock delivered to the chest that “resets” the pattern of the heart,according to the American Heart Association. An ablation is a procedure that burns away the piece of electrical tissue in the heart that is causing AFib.

“We’re able to go into the heart with catheters, and then we burn away the area where we think the atrial fibrillation is coming from,” says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Like other AFib treatment options, patients may choose ablation if medication or cardioversion is unwanted, or doctors may suggest it if other treatments have been ineffective.

“Each patient comes to the table with a different set of risk factors, and a different story behind their atrial fibrillation,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.  “We try to individualize based on their profile.”