Management of atrial fibrillation

The following advice is based on NICE CG180 Atrial Fibrillation: the management of atrial fibrillation (June 2014) and incorporates the following NICE Technology appraisals:

  • Dabigatran etexilate for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in atrial fibrillation. NICE TA249 (2012)
  • Rivaroxaban for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in people with atrial fibrillation. NICE TA256 (2012)
  • Apixaban for preventing stroke and systemic embolism in people with non-valvular atrial fibrillation. NICE TA275 (2013)
  • Edoxaban for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in people with non-valvular atrial fibrillation. NICE TA355 (2015)
  • Dronedarone for the treatment of non-permanent atrial fibrillation. NICE TA197 (2010)

The 2016 (4th Edition) guidance on Non-vitamin K oral anticoagulants for the prevention of stroke and systemic embolism in Atrial Fibrillation, published by the South West Cardiovascular Strategic Clinical Network.

MHRA Drug Safety Update (October 2019): Using the appropriate estimate of renal function to avoid the risk of adverse drug reactions

Please also refer to: Anticoagulation prescribing guidance page

The recommendations below apply to adults aged 18 years or over.

Patients with AF (and their carers) should be taught to recognise the signs of a stroke (the FAST test) and the action to be taken if they spot them

Diagnosis and Identification

AF can present in the setting of a wide variety of cardiac and non-cardiac conditions, it is often asymptomatic and can present with vague non-specific symptoms.

AF commonly occurs in association with risk factors, such as heart disease, and hyperthyroidism. Opportunistic assessment of such patients for the presence of AF may be prudent, especially since such patients are frequently seen for check-ups in primary care.

Other factors thought to cause or be associated with AF include medication such as thyroxine or bronchodilators, acute infection, electrolyte depletion, excessive caffeine intake or alcohol intake (especially in susceptible individuals, such as those with structural heart disease).

Perform manual pulse palpation to assess for the presence of an irregular pulse that may indicate underlying AF in people presenting with any of the following:

  • breathlessness/dyspnoea
  • palpitations
  • syncope/dizziness
  • chest discomfort
  • stroke/transient ischaemic attack

Perform an electrocardiogram (ECG) in all people, whether symptomatic or not, in those whom AF is suspected because an irregular pulse has been detected.

In patients confirmed with a new diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation (AF), NICE (2006) suggest select patients are referred for echocardiography, see:

If heart rate causing haemodynamic compromise (low BP, heart failure, chest pain, dizziness, syncope), then refer for immediate hospital admission.

Refer all patients with a new diagnosis of AF for specialist review, although clinical discretion should be used to determine if intervention is in the individual patient's best interest (e.g. palliative care). If heart rate causing haemodynamic compromise (low BP, heart failure, chest pain, dizziness, syncope), then refer for immediate hospital admission.

Rate or rhythm control?

A rate control strategy accepts the presence or occurrence of AF and aims to control ventricular rate and degree of irregularity despite continuing fibrillation within the atria. The alternative strategy of rhythm control attempts to restore and maintain sinus rhythm.

Refer people promptly at any stage if treatment fails to control the symptoms of AF and more specialised management is needed.

Rate control

Offer rate control as the first-line strategy to all people with AF, except people:

  • with AF which has a reversible cause
  • with heart failure thought to be primarily caused by AF
  • with new-onset AF
  • with atrial flutter whose condition is suitable for ablation surgery
  • for whom rhythm control strategy would be more suitable

Adequate control is indicated by a resting heart rate of less than 80/min and a maximum heart rate on exercise of 200/min-age.

Base the choice of drug on the person's symptoms, heart rate, comorbidities and preferences when considering drug treatment.

Offer a standard beta-blocker (other than sotalol*) or a rate-limiting calcium-channel blocker (diltiazem or verapamil**) as initial monotherapy.

*Sotalol should not be used for rate control due to risk of proarrhythmia

** Verapamil should not be combined with a beta-blocker (including eye drops) due to the adverse effects on left ventricular function. The combination of diltiazem with beta-blockers should be used with caution.

Consider digoxin monotherapy for people with non-paroxysmal AF only if they are sedentary. Digoxin is less effective for rate control during exercise or in conditions of high sympathetic drive (for example: infection or decompensated heart failure).

If monotherapy does not control symptoms (thought due to poor ventricular rate control), consider combination therapy with any 2 of the following:

  • a beta-blocker
  • diltiazem
  • digoxin

Do not offer amiodarone for long-term rate control.

Rhythm control

Consider pharmacological and/or electrical rhythm control for people with AF whose symptoms continue after heart rate has been controlled or a rate-control strategy has not been successful.


For people having cardioversion, for AF that has persisted for longer than 48 hours, offer electrical rather than pharmacological cardioversion.

Consider amiodarone therapy starting 4 weeks before and continuing for up to 12 months after electrical cardioversion to maintain sinus rhythm.

Prior to cardioversion anticoagulation must be considered.

Long term rhythm control

Assess the need for drug treatment for long-term rhythm control, taking into account the person's preferences, associated comorbidities, risks of treatment and likelihood of recurrence of AF.

If drug treatment for long-term rhythm control is needed, offer a standard beta-blocker (other than sotalol) as first-line treatment unless there are contraindications.

If beta-blockers are contraindicated or unsuccessful, assess the suitability of alternative drugs for rhythm control.

Dronedarone is recommended as an option for the maintenance of sinus rhythm after successful cardioversion in certain patients.

Amiodarone may be considered for patients with left ventricular impairment or heart failure.

Class 1c antiarrhythmic drugs such as flecainide or propafenone should not be offered to people with ischaemic or structural heart disease.

Where people have infrequent paroxysms and few symptoms, or where symptoms are induced by known precipitants (such as alcohol, caffeine), a 'no drug treatment' strategy or a 'pill-in-the-pocket' strategy should be considered. This should be offered following specialist assessment and the first such cardioversion should be supervised in secondary care.


Ablation is reserved for consideration in patients in whom drug treatment has failed to control symptoms of AF or is unsuitable.

Assessment of stroke and bleed risk in AF

AF increases the risk of stroke and thromboembolism by five-fold, but this risk is not homogeneous, and is dependent upon the presence of various stroke risk factors.

Assessment of stroke risk

Use the CHA2DS2-VASc stroke risk score to assess stroke risk in people with any of the following:

  • symptomatic or asymptomatic paroxysmal, persistent or permanent AF
  • atrial flutter
  • a continuing risk of arrhythmia recurrence after cardioversion back to sinus rhythm

Congestive Heart Failure History = 1

Hypertension History = 1

Age ≥75 years = 2

Diabetes mellitus = 1

Stroke / TIA / previous thromboembolism = 2

Vascular disease history (MI, PVD) = 1

Age 65-74 years = 1

Sex category: Female = 1 Male = 0

Assessment of bleeding risk

Use the HAS-BLED score to assess the risk of bleeding in people who are starting or have started anticoagulation. Offer modification and monitoring of the following risk factors:

  • uncontrolled hypertension
  • poor control of INR ('labile INRs')
  • concurrent medication, for example concomitant use of aspirin or an NSAID
  • harmful alcohol consumption

Hypertension history (uncontrolled, SBP greater than 160 mmHg) = 1

Abnormal renal function or liver function = 1 point each

(dialysis, transplant, Cr greater than 2.6 mg/dL or greater than 200 µmol/L or cirrhosis, bilirubin greater than 2 x normal, AST/ALT/AP greater than 3 x normal)

Stroke (previous history) = 1

Bleed history (prior major bleeding or predisposition to bleeding i.e. anaemia) = 1

Labile INRs (unstable/high INRs, Time in Therapeutic Range (TTR) less than 60%) = 1

Elderly (age over 65 years) = 1

Drugs or alcohol abuse = 1 point each

(medication predisposing risk of bleeding - antiplatelet agents, NSAIDs or 8 or more drinks / week)

Risk versus benefit of anticoagulation

  • Discuss the benefits and risks of anticoagulation with the patient
  • Consider using the NICE patient decision aid: medicines to help reduce your risk of a stroke – what are the options?
  • Do not withhold anticoagulation solely because the person is at risk of having a fall
  • Do not offer stroke prevention therapy to people aged less than 65 years with AF and no risk factors other than their sex.
  • Taking HAS-BLED score into consideration:
    • Consider anticoagulation for men with a CHA2DS2-VASc score of 1
    • Offer anticoagulation to people with a CHA2DS2-VASc score ≥ 2

If HAS-BLED less than 3 recommend anticoagulation subject to CHA2DS2-VASc score.

If HAS-BLED ≥3 address any modifiable factors e.g alcohol and/or BP reduction, concomitant medications etc.

Note that at almost any level of HAS-BLED score, the benefits of anticoagulation outweigh the risks.

Anticoagulation in AF

Anticoagulation may be with warfarin or a direct oral anticoagulant (DOAC) following consideration of bleeding; risk see Assessment of stroke and bleed risk (see above).

Refer patient for specialist management if anticoagulation is contraindicated or not tolerated.

Do not offer aspirin monotherapy solely for stroke prevention to people with AF. The NICE guideline concludes that the evidence is consistent with no clinical benefit of aspirin in reducing mortality and systemic emboli. The guideline also concludes that although there was a modest benefit in reducing ischaemic stroke it was partially offset by a modest harm in increased bleeding and haemorrhagic stroke. There is limited benefit in offering aspirin as the benefit is not outweighed by the associated harms, however this is based upon results from a single study which uses a dose different to that used in current clinical practice.The NICE guideline concludes that anticoagulants are more clinically beneficial than antiplatelets and should be clearly recommended as first line therapy for patients at increased stroke risk.

The decision about whether to start treatment with a DOAC should be made after an informed discussion between the clinician and the person about the risks and benefits of the various anticoagulant options. For people who are taking warfarin, the potential risks and benefits of switching to a DOAC should be considered in light of their level of INR control.

Each drug should be used according to the individual Summary of Product Characteristics (SPCs), however accumulated clinical experience in practice from physicians and pharmacists has moulded the South West Cardiovascular Strategic Clinical Network Non-vit K Anticoagulants guidance which has been used in order to provide the guidance below. The guidance sets out the main considerations and patient groups where these alternatives to warfarin may be useful.

MHRA Drug Safety Update (October 2019): Using the appropriate estimate of renal function to avoid the risk of adverse drug reactions

Efficacy and safety

The efficacy and safety of the DOACs in people unable or unwilling (for whatever reason) to take warfarin, or in whom warfarin is relatively or absolutely contraindicated, has not been conclusively established. All patients in the principal published studies (n > 70,000) were eligible to be randomized to warfarin. There are still only small amounts of data on the safety and efficacy of DOACs in patients who have had previous serious bleeding or other adverse events with warfarin.

Comparative bleeding rates

There is limited experience in the use of DOACs in patients for whom warfarin is considered too risky.

Clinical experience

There are no long term effectiveness data for DOACs beyond the approximate 2 year average in the published trials, and post-marketing safety studies are in progress. Warfarin has over 50 years of accumulated clinical experience.


For people not taking an anticoagulant, stroke risk should be reviewed when the patient reaches 65 years of age or if any of the following develop at any age:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Peripheral arterial disease
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke, TIA or systemic thromboembolism

For people who are not taking an anticoagulant because of bleeding risk or other factors, review stroke and bleeding risks annually.

For people who are taking an anticoagulant, review the continuing need for anticoagulation and the quality of anticoagulation at least annually or more frequently if clinically relevant events occur affecting anticoagulation or bleeding risk.


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