, Volume 63, Issue 14, pp 1489-1509
Date: 19 Sep 2012

Rate Control in Atrial Fibrillation

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The clinical relevance and high social costs of atrial fibrillation have boosted interest in rate control as a cost-effective alternative to long-term maintenance of sinus rhythm (i.e. rhythm control). Prospective studies show that rate control (coupled with thromboembolic prophylaxis) is a valuable treatment option for all forms of atrial fibrillation. The rationale for rate control is that high ventricular rates, frequently found in atrial fibrillation, lead to haemodynamic impairment, consisting of a variable combination of loss of atrial kick, irregularity in ventricular response and inappropriately rapid ventricular rate, depending on the type of underlying heart disease. Long-term persistence of tachycardia at a high ventricular rate can lead to various degrees of ventricular dysfunction and even to tachycardiomyopathy-related heart failure. Identification of this reversible and often concealed form of left ventricular dysfunction can permit effective management by rate (or rhythm) control.

Although acute rate control (to reduce ventricular rate within hours) is still often based on digoxin administration, for patients without left ventricular dysfunction, calcium channel antagonists or β-adrenoceptor antagonists (β-blockers) are generally more appropriate and effective. In chronic atrial fibrillation, longterm rate control (to reduce morbidity/mortality and improve quality of life) must be adapted to patients' individual characteristics to grant control during daily activities, including exercise. According to current guidelines, the clinical target of rate control should be a ventricular rate below 80–90 bpm at rest. However, in many patients, assessment of the appropriateness of different drugs should include exercise testing and 24h-Holter monitoring, for which specific guidelines are needed.

In practice, rate control is considered a valid alternative to rhythm control. Recent prospective trials (e.g. the Pharmacological Intervention in Atrial Fibrillation [PIAF] and the Atrial Fibrillation Follow-up Investigation of Rhythm Management [AFFIRM] trials) have shown that in selected patients, rate control provides similar benefits, more economically, in terms of quality of life and long-term mortality.

The choice of a rate control medication (digoxin, β-blockers, calcium channel antagonists or possibly amiodarone) or a non-pharmacological approach (mainly atrioventricular node ablation coupled with pacing) must currently be based on clinical assessment, which includes assessing the presence of underlying heart disease and haemodynamic impairment. Definite guidelines are required for each different subset of patients. Rate control is particularly tricky in patients with heart failure, for whom non-pharmacological options can also be considered. The preferred pharmacological options are β-blockers for stabilised heart failure and digoxin for unstabilised forms.