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J Fam Pract. 2000 Jan;49(1):47-59.

The evidence regarding the drugs used for ventricular rate control.

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The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.



Our goal was to determine what drugs are most efficacious for controlling the ventricular rate in patients with atrial fibrillation.


We conducted a systematic review of the literature published before May 1998, beginning with searches of The Cochrane Collaboration's CENTRAL database and MEDLINE.


We included English-language articles describing randomized controlled trials of drugs used for heart rate control in adults with atrial fibrillation.


Abstracts of trials were reviewed independently by 2 members of the study team. We reviewed English-language abstracts of non-English-language publications to assess qualitative consistency with our results.


Forty-five articles evaluating 17 drugs met our criteria for review. In the 5 trials of verapamil and 5 of diltiazem, heart rate was reduced significantly (P <.05), both at rest and with exercise, compared with placebo, with equivalent or improved exercise tolerance in 6 of 7 comparisons. In 7 of 12 comparisons of a beta-blocker with placebo, the beta-blocker was efficacious for control of resting heart rate, with evidence that the effect is drug specific, as nadolol and atenolol proved to be most efficacious. All 9 comparisons demonstrated good heart rate control with beta-blockers during exercise, although exercise tolerance was compromised in 3 of 9 comparisons. In 7 of 8 trials, digoxin administered alone slowed the resting heart rate more than placebo, but it did not significantly slow the rate during exercise in 4 studies. The trials evaluating other drugs yielded insufficient evidence to support their use, but those drugs may yet be promising.


The calcium-channel blockers verapamil or diltiazem, or select beta-blockers are efficacious for heart rate control at rest and during exercise for patients with atrial fibrillation without a clinically important decrease in exercise tolerance. Digoxin is useful when rate control during exercise is less a concern.

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