Tag Archives: antiarrhythmic

Atrial Fibrillation Detection, Personal ECG Monitoring and Ablation: A Patient’s Story

One of the joys of writing this blog is the communication it allows me with discerning  individuals and patients across the planet. One such reader, Mark Goldstein, discovered he was in atrial fibrillation after purchasing an Apple Watch 4.

He now utilizes both the Kardia Mobile ECG and the Apple Watch to aid in his personal monitoring of his atrial fibrillation and has been actively pursuing a rhythm control strategy under the care of his electrophysiologist.

I asked him to share with my readers his experience which recently culminated in an ablation.

What follows is his description with my editorial comments in green.


December 2018 I bought a crazy, expensive Apple Watch. That watch may have saved my life. I spend much of my days at a treaddesk (a combination desk and treadmill). I was curious to find out how much exercise I was doing. I bought the watch, put it on, and starting walking as I do almost every day. Two hours later the watch had an alarm. It was warning me about something called “atrial fibrillation,” It said, “your heart has shown signs of an irregular rhythm.” What! I never heard of afib before. I quickly learned about it. Heart palpitations, no. Pain/pressure in the chest, no. Sweaty, faint, dizzy, etc., no, no. no. I checked the box for tired but I assumed it was because of the amount of exercise I was doing.

The next day I was fortunate that I had a physical scheduled a year ago. I told my doctor that my “crazy, expensive watch” thinks I have afib. My doctor laughed, telling me about how he had checked and probed every part of my body for the last 20 years (the probing part I remembered well). As the exam was concluding, he was puzzled by the afib warning so he grabbed my wrist to check my pulse. A few seconds later he was asking the nurse to give me an EKG. Darn, the watch was correct (and for me it was correct 99% of the time when I had afib and when I was normal – praise to Apple).

Recording from Mark’s Apple Watch 4 showing atrial fibrillation with controlled ventricular response. Heart rate is only 82 beats per minute. The AW algorithm correction identifies atrial fibrillation.

(This is a great example of how atrial fibrillation can be missed by the routine office physical examination. Some patients, especially those with non-rapid heart rates (due to rate slowing meds like beta-blockers or to intrinsically  slow conduction of electrical impulses) are minimally symptomatic and their pulses don’t feel that irregular. Because the first symptom of afib can be stroke I am an advocate of screening)

Shortly I got to meet a cardiologist (like Dr. Pearson, they are all nice people). Another EKG, afib confirmed. As we were talking about my symptoms or lack of symptoms, he said that afib was a bit like Eskimo’s describing snow. Each snowflake is unique and each afib patient is unique. I was in persistent afib. Probably had been in this state for two or three years since my heart rate jumped while sleeping, exercising, and at rest.

(Each afib experience is unique but not all cardiologists are nice people. Mark has been fortunate.)

The treatment plan was a cardioversion, an electrical shock to the heart, or as my cardiologist described it “like rebooting a computer.”

(See my post on cardioversion here.)

As a tech person, I understood that. The risk of not fixing my afib was five times the likelihood of a stroke. The risks were minimal so I chose the cardioversion.

(A common misconception is that ablation or cardioversion eliminates or substantially lowers the risk of stroke in afib. This is not the case. I’ll devote a future post to delve into this issue.)

Cardioversion one lasted four days before my Apple Watch started to detect afib.

(I’ve described in detail how helpful patient utilization of personal ECG monitoring is in letting me know the rhythm status of patients prior to and following cardioversion here.)

The cardiologist next step was cardioversion two along with a drug to help with rhythm control. Number two lasted a month before I saw my heart rate jump again. I thought something was wrong even though my watch was not detecting afib. Another EKG, this time the result was aflutter. The cardioversions were indeed like a reboot of the computer. If you have a virus on your computer, a reboot may be a temporary fix but eventually the virus will return.

(There are many drugs whose purpose is to suppress the recurrence of atrial fibrillation. Mark was prescribed the extended release version of propafenone, a Type IC antiarrhythmic drug (AAD)  similar in efficacy and side effects to flecainide. Type IC AADs should only be used in patients with normal left ventricular function (which was demonstrated in Mark by an echo) and without significant coronary artery disease (typically proven by a negative stress test).

To Ablate Or Not To Ablate

Now I got to meet an electrocardiologist. He said my afib would return and recommended an ablation. He said it was unlikely to be a permanent cure but it would help.

The aflutter disappeared after a day or so. I thought my afib was gone too but should I have an ablation? Ablations are relatively safe but since I was afib free why have the procedure?

I purchased the new Kardia Mobile six-lead portable EKG, a miracle of technology. Highly recommended for peace of mind. Just like my watch, I was seeing normal sinus rhythm. So why get an ablation?

A cardiologist had a YouTube video talking about the decision to have an ablation or any medical procedure. How will it affect the quality of your life or the quantity (how long will you live). This was a simple analysis and I like simple. I heard from my cardiologist that the evidence is that an ablation will unlikely extend my life nor will it reduce my lifespan. It was likely to not affect my lifespan. I confirmed this via independent research (be an informed patient, your outcomes will be better). See Dr Pearson’s articles about the CABANA study and the scientific evidence on ablation).  So an ablation and quantity of life were neutral.

Importance Of Quality Of Life

Quality of life was more interesting. Could I do the things wanted to do with my life? Did afib affect my day-to-day life? Could I walk up a couple of flights of stairs without breathing hard? Was I getting tired at 10AM? Could I exercise? At the time, the answer was easy. I could do everything I wanted to do. The afib affect was just about zero except for blood thinner drugs which I suspect I will take forever. No ablation.

Then “the day.” I woke and checked my sleep app on my phone. Heart rate at night jumped. Hmm! I went to the gym. My heart rate while walking jumped too. I did 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise and my heart rate monitor said 205 beats per minute. My heart was beating so hard I had to sit for five minutes. I knew something was wrong. Then I climbed a couple of flights of stairs, something that would never bother me. I felt a shortness of breath. I knew my afib was back. I also knew that the quality of my life was now being affected. I could not do things I wanted to do. My watch and Kardia Mobile EKG confirmed what I knew.

I called my electrocardiologist and scheduled an ablation. He was right. Afib would return.

(Mark tells me that he was taken off his propafenone one month after the second cardioversion because “the PA said I no longer needed it since I was in sinus rhythm.” My practice would have been to continue the propafenone as long as well tolerated and effective in suppressing afib recurrence. In my experience, the recurrence of Mark’s afib may not have been a failure of medical therapy. I treat patients similar to Mark by continuing the anti-arrhythmic drug since the minimal risks are lowered by regular monitoring and I regularly see maintenance of SR.”)

(Other antiarrhythmic medications were mentioned to Mark but as they required a 3 day hospital stay he was not interested.)


Stay tuned: Part two Of Mark’s post will be about the ablation procedure which he recently underwent.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the WashingtonDC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhgoldstein/

Enlightened Medical Management of Atrial Fibrillation, Part II: The Pill In The Pocket Approach

It has been estimated that patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (PAF) have health care costs 5 times those without  afib. More than 50% of those costs are attributed to ER visits and acute care hospitalizations. The pill in the pocket (PIP)  approach can substantially reduce those hospital visits.

PIP addresses the complimentary patient priorities of minimizing daily drug burden and empowering patients to self-manage their episodes of sustained PAF thereby reducing the need to visit the ER or be hospitalized.

How Doth The Pill In Pocket Work?

With this approach, the patient upon experiencing a symptomatic episode of atrial fib takes (or as we doctors like to say “self-administers”) a single bolus of oral flecainide or propafenone (two so-called antiarrhythmic drugs or AADs.)

It is not necessary that the pill be in the pocket of the patient, indeed the pill might be in the pocket of the pastor of the patient or perhaps in the purse of the paramour of the patient. Indeed, the pill only need be near enough that the patient can pop it into his or her pie hole within a reasonable time period after the AF begins.

In properly selected patients, generally within 3 hours, the rhythm will suddenly pop back to normal

Prior to popping the AAD pill it is wise to have the patient pop a pill that slows the heart rate such as a beta blocker or cardizem or verapamil.

After popping the pill it wise to have the patient assume a supine position or at least a sitting position for a few hours or until the heart pops back to normal.

One Man And One Woman’s PIP Experience

I first saw Pete in 2017 on the day after his 60th birthday.  He awoke in the middle of the night feeling his heart fluttering. He was weak  and very light headed and came to our ER where he was noted to be in rapid atrial fibrillation.

He was given intravenous  cardizem which slowed his heart rate and made him feel better but did not convert him back to normal rhythm. We started him on the newer oral anticoagulant, Eliquis, to reduce his stroke risk.

The next day I performed a cardioversion on him after excluding the presence of left atrial thrombus with a transesophageal echocardiogram.

He did well for some time without recurrent afib but two years later he was again awoken from sleep around 1130 PM with a feeling of his heart fluttering and shortness of breath.

In the ER afib with rapid ventricular response was again noted and this time the ER doctor suggested that an electrical cardioversion be performed right away. Pete was told  there were “slight risks” to the procedure but he was nervous about doing it without me being on the case. His heart rate  was 106 and he was given an intravenous beta-blocker,  metoprolol to slow the heart rate.

The next morning we discussed options with him and decided to try the PIP approach to convert him back to normal rhythm. He received 300 mg flecainide orally at 11 AM and 1.5 hours later he converted to the normal rhythm.. The monitor strips recorded below captured the transition nicely.

pill in pocket flecainide

A 72 year old woman whom we shall call Miss Mystery X  presented with a sensation of weakness and dizziness beginning at noon. She had a history of paroxysmal afib. We had her come into office and ECG demonstrated atrial fibrillation at a rate of 100 BPM.

She was admitted to telemetry and given 300 mg flecainide and 45 minutes later the telemetry ECG strip below indicated conversion to normal sinus rhythm without any pauses, symptoms or hypotension. We discharged her later that day.

cooks-pip.png

For both of these patients we have carefully documented that they have a structurally normal heart by echocardiography and stress testing which is essential when utilizing flecainide. In addition, we carefully assess for stroke risk and anticoagulate them accordingly.

They now have available as outpatients a method for converting from afib to SR which is proven safe and effective for them.

I recently saw Miss X in the office after her hospital visit. She had just returned from a trip to Peru and Bolivia. Among other fascinating adventures she had flown over the Nazca Lines.

Aerial view of the “Heron”, one of the geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines, which are located in the Nazca Desert, near the city of Nazca, in southern Peru. The geoglyphs of this UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1994) are spread over a 80 km (50 mi) plateau between the towns of Nazca and Palpa and are, according to some studies, between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. old. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, she had no episodes of afib but should she have started fibrillating she knew that she had a safe and effective treatment that could convert her back to normal without the need of engaging foreign doctors and hospitals.

One of these two patients has acquired  the AliveCor Kardia Mobile ECG and will have the capability of transmitting to me his ECG via KardiaPro should his device alert him to the presence of atrial fibrillation. This capability further enhances the control that patient’s can have over the diagnosis and treatment of their afib episodes

The Science Behind The PIP Approach

The seminal article on the PIP approach was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 by Alboni, et al.

The paper reported on 268 patients with PAF presenting to the ER who had a structurally normal heart and were without disabling symptoms or low BP who were given larges oral doses of oral flecainide or propafenone. Overall, 210 patients converted to normal rhythm and were felt appropriate for out patient treatment.

This approach was quite successful:

During a mean follow-up of 15±5 months, 165 patients (79 percent) had a total of 618 episodes of arrhythmia; of those episodes, 569 (92 percent) were treated 36±93 minutes after the onset of symptoms. Treatment was successful in 534 episodes (94 percent); the time to resolution of symptoms was 113±84 minutes.

ER visits and hospitalizations for PAF were markedly reduced.

I tracked down Dr. Alboni through the scientific research social media site ResearchGate.net and asked him if he was still utilizing this approach and if he had any new data.

He responded.

the follow-up was terminated as reported in the paper. However, I have then observed that in patients > 75 years there are many side effects (unpublished data) and I do not utilize anymore the pill-in-the-pocket approach in these patients. I am still using flecainide and propafenone according to the doses and the methods described in the paper.

His 2004 paper enrolled patients 18 to 75 years of age and I have tended to restrict the PIP approach to my patients under age 76 due to concerns about more conduction disease and occult CAD in older patients.

When I pressed Dr. Alboni for more data or info on this he responded:

  • I observed a high incidence of side effects in patients > 75 years in the daily clinical practice, but I did not carry out a research because, after a concentration of side effects in a few patients, I did not prescribe anymore this treatment to old patients

PIP Current Practice

There is a nice paper on recent experience with the PIP approach which was published in 2018 by Josh Andrade who runs a multidisciplinary AF clinic in Vancouver, Canada

Consecutive patients aged 18-75 years of age attending the Vancouver multidisciplinary AF clinic and receiving PIP treatment were studied over a 3 year period. Entry criteria included, sustained symptomatic episode lasting >2 hours, frequency <1/month, absence of severe or disabling symptoms with AF episode

Patients with significant structural heart disease (LVEF<50%, “active ischemic heart disease”, severe LVH) were excluded along with those with the following features:

-Abnormal conduction (QRS>120ms, pr>200 ms, pre excitation)

-Clinical or ECG evidence of sinus node dysfunction/bradycardia or AV block

-hypotension with systolic blood pressure <100 mm Hg

Participating patients received their first PIP treatment while being monitored on telemetry in either an ER or hospital telemetry.  They were given the instructions below to give to the doctors in the ER.

Vancouver PIP sheet1

And they were provided with these instructions:

PIP vancouver 2

As the graph below shows, the PIP  approach resulted in a substantial reduction in ER visits, as well as a substantial reduction in the need for electrical or IV pharmacologic cardioversions

Adverse events (mostly low blood pressure but also 2 cases of conversion of  rhythm to a more rapid atrial flutter requiring cardio version) were noted in 16% of the initial PIP-AAD administrations and 19% failed to convert to NSR.

The Andrade PIP approach has patients receive a single dose of a rate-slowing drug 30 minutes prior to giving the AAD. This was done to prevent 1:1 conduction of atypical flutter. It’s not clear if this is beneficial and it could potentially contribute to episodes of bradycardia or hypotension.

In my practice I utilize flecainide over propafenone exclusively for both PIP therapy and chronic maintenance therapy. The generic version of flecainide for chronic therapy is twice daily versus thrice daily for propafenone and therefore preferred.  Dr. Andrade told me that when using the PIP approach:

In our clinic it’s probably 60:40 Propafenone to Flecainide.

Pill In The Pocket: Another Tool in The Toolkit For Enlightened Medical Management of Atrial Fibrillation

For the patient with PAF and relatively infrequent episodes of symptomatic afib the PIP approach can be very useful. Once established as safe and effective it allows the patient to avoid ER and hospital visits related to the PAF.

The ideal patient is less than 76 years of age and has a structurally normal heart.

PIP works really well for patients who are armed (pun intended) with a way to monitor their rhythm such as Apple Watch 4 or AliveCor’s Kardia Mobile ECG. Use of personal ECG monitoring in conjunction with a cardiologist practicing Enlightened Medical Management of afib is the optimal approach.

ProPIPically Yours,

-ACP