Atrial Fibrillation is a very common heart rhythm disorder that may affect patients of all ages. Typically, this type of heart arrhythmia causes symptoms including palpitations, chest pain, dizziness or shortness of breath. However, it is important to note that this disorder can sometimes (especially in the elderly) be present without any symptoms whatsoever. While this arrhythmia is often associated with other heart conditions (valve problems, hypertension, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure), in many patients, there is nothing else wrong with the heart. Patients with atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter and 1 or more risk factors for stroke such as simply being older than 65, having diabetes or hypertension, having a history of heart failure or prior mini-strokes are often prescribed anticoagulant drugs to prevent a stroke. For decades, physicians have prescribed Coumadin (warfarin) to reduce the risk. Importantly, aspirin is not nearly as effective as Coumadin in reducing the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation and is not considered an anticoagulant.
Patients taking Coumadin require blood tests every 4-8 weeks to monitor the proper dose to be sure the drug is effective and to reduce the risk of bleeding. Certain foods can reduce the effectiveness of the drug (such as leafy greens or spinach) and often medications can interact with Coumadin that potentially increase the risk of bleeding (especially certain antibiotics). Despite these drawbacks, Coumadin has effectively been utilized for decades to reduce the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation.
In the past 5 years, newer anticoagulants have been approved by the FDA for reducing the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation. These include Pradaxa, Xaelto and Eliquis. Drugs such as Clopidogrel (Plavix) are not used for this purpose and like aspirin are antiplatelet drugs used for other purposes. These newer anticoagulants have the advantage of not requiring blood tests to monitor their efficacy and they have fewer interactions with foods and other medications. Large clinical trials have been performed for each of the above newer anticoagulants and 3 drugs have been tests in head to head comparisons with Coumadin for efficacy and bleeding complications. The trials have demonstrated that all of the newer agents are at least as effective as Coumadin without a significant increase in bleeding risk. Despite the fact that all the newer agents do not have an antidote (such as vitamin K or plasma) in patients who are bleeding, this has not translated into a significant increase in bleeding risk in the large trials, and therefore, is why they have been approved by the FDA.
That being said, all anticoagulants carry a risk of bleeding and the decision to use Coumadin or any of the newer drugs is a decision requiring close consultation and discussion with your physician. It is important to promptly notify your physicians if you have had atrial fibrillation, are not taking an anticoagulant and you have any symptoms of a mini-stroke, even if the symptoms resolve on their own.
It is also important to note that all of the above also applies to patients with atrial flutter, another arrhythmia similar to atrial fibrillation. The above does not apply to patients with palpitations and tachycardia unless atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter has been confirmed with an EKG.
If you have symptoms that suggest you might have episodes of atrial fibrillation or you have already been diagnosed with an arrhythmia and wish to discuss the use of Coumadin or any of the newer agents, you can contact your existing cardiologist, or call HealthConnection at 404-778-7777 to make an appointment with an Emory cardiologist near you.