Atrial fibrillation is the fast, irregular beating of the heart’s upper chambers, or atria. It is often difficult to diagnose due to its asymptomatic nature. And, while not life threatening per se, it can cause blood clots, increasing by five times the risk of stroke – the second leading cause of death worldwide.

Anticoagulants (blood thinners) like warfarin are the cornerstone of treatment for atrial fibrillation. They can reduce stroke risk by 70 per cent but are not useful for treating the condition, for which patients need other therapies.

Revolutionary changes

Research advances have led to the development of new treatments and devices that are revolutionising atrial fibrillation diagnosis and management. Patients can now use smart phone apps to monitor their hearth rhythm and detect irregularities. And novel anticoagulants are available that are more effective and have lower bleeding risk than warfarin.

A new nonsurgical procedure, which involves the sealing off of a small appendage in the left atrium where clots may form, can be used for stroke risk reduction in patients unsuitable for anticoagulant therapy. Another nonsurgical procedure, called catheter ablation, uses heat to destroy areas inside the heart that are causing rhythm problems. It is effective at stopping atrial fibrillation and possibly also at reducing stroke risk.

More to come

Non-invasive systems are being developed that allow creating 3D maps of the heart’s electrical activity during a single heartbeat. While this is still quite experimental, it will be very useful in the near future for identifying the exact areas where rhythm abnormalities originate from.