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Echocardiography. 2000 May;17(4):393-405.

Risk of thromboembolism in acute atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter.

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Department of Medicine, University of Luisville, KY 40292, USA.


Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common sustained cardiac dysrhythmia, predominating in the elderly, with stroke as a potentially devastating complication. Prevention of the thromboembolic sequelae from AF remains a central focus of practicing clinicians. Although the risk of thromboembolism in chronic AF is well recognized, less is known about the potential risk of systemic embolism in acute AF. In addition, recent data support the notion of a group at considerable risk of embolism from atrial flutter, an arrhythmia typically believed to bestow little increased risk of thromboembolism. The mechanism of thrombus formation, embolization, and resolution in atrial arrhythmias is not well defined, particularly in that of acute AF or atrial flutter. The traditional concept proposes that atrial thrombus forms only after > 2 days of AF and embolizes by being dislodged from increases in shear forces. This widely accepted concept further holds that newly formed atrial thrombus, in the setting of AF, organizes over a span of 14 days. The results of studies based on observations from transesophageal echocardiography examinations have provided provocative insight into the temporal sequence of atrial thrombus formation, embolization, and resolution in AF or atrial flutter and have expanded the traditional concept of thromboembolism in these atrial dysrhythmias. Namely, left atrial thrombus may form before the onset of AF in the face of sinus rhythm. Conversion to sinus rhythm may increase the thrombogenic milieu of the left atrium. Importantly, atrial thrombus may form in the acute phase of AF. Last, thrombi may require > 14 days to become immobile or to resolve. Findings similar to those of acute AF have been reported in patients with atrial flutter and coexisting cardiac pathology. On the basis of these emerging insights fostered by the use of transesophageal echocardiography, it appears appropriate to consider anticoagulation in patients presenting with acute AF or atrial flutter with coexisting cardiac pathology predisposing to left atrial thrombus.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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