Understanding Your Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

Understanding Your Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation affects 1 in every 3-5 adults, making their heart beat irregularly and significantly increasing their risk of having a stroke. Our experienced cardiologists at Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute prefer to help you prevent atrial fibrillation. But after the condition develops, they provide treatments tailored to meet your unique cardiovascular needs.

About atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation develops when the heart’s electrical system doesn’t work properly. As a result, the upper two chambers beat rapidly and chaotically, often causing symptoms such as:

This type of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) affects the normal blood flow through your heart, allowing blood to pool in the lower chambers. Blood clots develop when blood slows down or stops moving. If a clot leaves your heart, it can cause a stroke.

Treatment options for atrial fibrillation

After diagnosing atrial fibrillation, we recommend treatments to control your heart rate, restore a normal heart rhythm, and lower your risk of having a stroke. Meeting all three goals often means taking more than one type of medication or needing a procedure.

We always begin with the most conservative treatment that’s appropriate for your heart and overall health. For most people, that means beginning with medication then considering interventional procedures when needed.

Here’s a rundown of the possible treatments for atrial fibrillation:

Medications to prevent blood clots

Antiplatelet and anticoagulant medications, more commonly called blood thinners, prevent blood clots from forming. You may also need one of these medications to treat an existing blood clot.

Aspirin is an antiplatelet medication, while the most common anticoagulants are warfarin and heparin. However, these are only a few of the possible blood-thinning medications we may prescribe.

Medications to control your heart rate

Medications prescribed to treat a rapid heartbeat include:

Beta blockers

Though best known for treating high blood pressure, these medications also help people with atrial fibrillation by slowing down their heart rate and improving blood flow.

Calcium channel blockers

Also used for high blood pressure, calcium channel blockers relax blood vessels and help regulate your heartbeat.


Digoxin works through its effect on your heart’s electrical system. The medication lowers your heart rate and improves muscle contraction.

Medications to control your heart rhythm

In addition to controlling your heart rate, you may also need medications to restore a steady rhythm. We choose from among several medications that fall into two categories, sodium channel blockers and potassium channel blockers. Both types work by slowing down electrical signals.

Electrical cardioversion

Electrical cardioversion restores a normal heart rhythm using a strong electrical shock. We give you a mild anesthetic, place electrodes against your chest, and send an electrical pulse into your heart.

This is similar to using an electrical shock to restart a heartbeat during a heart attack. However, the two are different because electrical cardioversion is carefully timed and applied during a specific part of your heart’s electrical cycle.

We may also be able to achieve the same goal using medication. This procedure, called chemical cardioversion, takes longer to work than electrical cardioversion.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive procedure that targets the cells triggering the abnormal electrical signals in your heart. Before performing RFA, we map your heart’s electrical system, identifying the area causing the abnormal signals.

During the procedure, we make a tiny cut and insert a catheter (a flexible, narrow tube) into your blood vessels. Using real-time imaging, we guide the catheter through the vessels and into your heart.

We send a controlled burst of radiofrequency energy through the catheter, destroying the malfunctioning cells and restoring normal heart rhythm.

Pacemaker insertion

A pacemaker monitors your heart’s electrical activity and automatically sends an electrical pulse when your heart rate slows down. Getting a pacemaker inserted is a surgical procedure in which the device is implanted under the skin near your collarbone.

If you have signs of atrial fibrillation — fluttering in your chest, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue — or want to learn more about how to prevent the condition, call Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute or request an appointment online today.

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