The most common cardiac arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, occurs when the normal electrical impulses that are generated by the SA node are overwhelmed by disorganized electrical impulses in the atria.
These disorganized impulses cause the muscles of the upper chambers of the heart to quiver (fibrillate) and this leads to the conduction of irregular impulses to the ventricles.
For ACLS, atrial fibrillation becomes a problem when the fibrillation produces a rapid heart rate which reduces cardiac output and causes symptoms or an unstable condition.
When atrial fibrillation occurs with a (RVR) rapid ventricular rate (rate > 100 beats/min), this is called a tachyarrhythmia. This tachyarrhythmia may or may not produce symptoms. Significant symptoms that occur are due to a reduction in cardiac output.
The following is a list of the most common symptoms.
- palpitations or chest discomfort
- shortness of air and possibly respiratory distress
- hypotension, light-headedness and possibly loss of consciousness
- peripheral edema, jugular vein distention, and possibly pulmonary edema
For the purpose of ACLS, it is important to be able to recognize atrial fibrillation when the patient is symptomatic. On an ECG monitor, there are two major characteristics that will help you identify atrial fibrillation.
- No p-waves before the QRS on the ECG. This is because there are no coordinated atrial contractions.
- The heart rate will be irregular. Irregular impulses that the ventricles are receiving cause the irregular heart rate.
When the heart rate is extremely rapid, it may be difficult to determine if the rate is irregular, and the absence of p-waves will be the best indicator of atrial fibrillation.
For the purposes of ACLS atrial fibrillation is treated when the arrhythmia/tachyarrhythmia produces hemodynamic instability and serious signs and symptoms.
For the patient with unstable tachycardia due to a tachyarrhythmia, immediate cardioversion is recommended. Drugs are not used to manage unstable tachycardia.
Cardioversion of stable atrial fibrillation should be performed with caution if the arrhythmia is more than 48 hours old and no anticoagulant therapy has been initiated due to the risk of emboli that can cause MI and stroke.
Below is a short video which will help you quickly identify atrial fibrillation on a monitor.
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