Tag Archives: irregular rhythm detection

Premature Atrial Contractions: Are They Benign Or Malignant?

In the last few weeks the skeptical cardiologist has had a run on patients with premature atrial contractions (PACs).

I’ve discussed in detail premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) here and here. They are the most common cause of an individual feeling that their heart is skipping a beat or fluttering briefly, something we term palpitations.

Premature beats, which can be either PVCS or PACs, in addition to causing palpitations, are the most common cause of an irregular pulse detected by a blood pressure device or a health care worker,

What Causes Premature Atrial Contractions?

 

Like PVCs, PACs occur when electrically active tissue in the heart decides to fire off (or depolarize) before it has received the signal from the normal pacemaker of the heart, the sinus node. In the case of PACs, the rogue tissue is in one of the atria, the upper chambers of the heart.

In the ECG recording below, the PAC (labeled APC) occurs earlier than expected (prematurely). The normal (sinus) beats occur at regular intervals and are all preceded by p waves of normal configuration which are the normal electrical signature of atrial contraction. The larger spike that follows the p wave (the QRS complex) represents ventricular depolarization and is unchanged from the normal sinus beats because activation of the ventricle is normal with PACs.

These early beats, in and of themselves, are felt to be benign.

Premature Atrial Contractions Are Very Common

 

They are extremely common when we monitor ECG rhythm for an extended period, even in young, totally normal individuals. More common, in fact, than PVCs.

For example, in a select group of male aviators

Rare, occasional, frequent and very frequent isolated atrial ectopy occurred in 72.9%, 2.6%, 2.3% and 0.3%, respectively. The same categories of isolated ventricular ectopy occurred in 40.9%, 7.9%, 3.3% and 0.0%.

Frequency of isolated ectopy was classified as a percentage of the total beats on the Holter monitor: rare (< or =0.1%), occasional (>0.1 to 1.0%), frequent (>1.0 to 10%) and very frequent (>10%).

Thus, the majority of the time we will see some PACs in normal subjects who we monitor for 24 hours by ECG.

It was also common to see two PACs in a row (an atrial couplet or pair). Atrial couplets occurred in 14.5% of these aviators.

The highlighted box from the 3 lead Holter monitor recording below shows an atrial couplet.

atrial tach holter
The QRS complex of the premature atrial complex (PAC) is usually preceded by a visible P wave that has a slightly different shape or different PR interval from the P wave seen with sinus beats. The PR interval of the PAC may be either longer or shorter than the PR interval of the normal beats. In some cases the P wave may be subtly hidden in the T wave of the preceding beat.

When 3 or more  premature atrial beats occur in a row, we start calling this nonsustained supraventricular tachycardia.

Nonsustained supraventricular and ventricular tachycardia (duration 3 to 10 beats) occurred in 4.3% (13/303) and 0.7% (2/303), respectively of those normal male aviators.

PACs Are More Common As We Age

 

One study found that in normal individuals over age 50 years , 99% had at least 1 PAC during 24 -hour Holter monitoring. The PAC prevalence strongly increased with age from about one per hour in those aged 50 to 55 years to 2.6 per hour among those aged ≥70 years.

Another study analyzed 24 hour holter recordings at 5 year intervals and found the frequency of PACs (and PVCs) increased significantly in all age groups over that time span.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 6.35.20 AM
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724889/

APCs And Atrial Fibrillation

 

Not uncommonly, when a patient has PACs, especially if they are frequent, computer ECG interpretations mistakenly diagnose atrial fibrillation. This happens regularly even with a full, medical-grade 12-lead ECG. Fortunately, such ECGS are still over-read by cardiologists who usually make the correct diagnosis.

The computerized algorithms that single lead mobile ECG devices like Apple Watch 4 and AliveCor’s Kardia similarly are frequently confused by premature beats, especially APCs. I wrote about this in detail in my post on PVCS and PACs here.

Sometimes the devices will diagnose “possible atrial fibrillation” in a patient with frequent PACs in sinus rhythm and sometimes “unclassified.”

In addition, patients with very frequent APCs show a higher tendency to develop atrial fibrillation and a higher risk of cardiovascular complications.

The Various Names Of The Extra Beats

 

Whereas a consensus has been achieved (for the most part) on the term for early beats from the ventricles (premature ventricular contractions or PVCs ) the term for PACS varies from one cardiologist to another and one paper to another.

If I enter in

“atrial premature”

into my EMR problem list search, multiple naming options appear (all with the same ICD code of I49.1)

In addition, you  may also encounter the terms atrial ectopy, premature atrial beats or various combinations of “supraventricular” with either contraction, beats or ectopy.

The two most popular acronyms are APCs or PACs and I am guilty of using these interchangeably and seemingly randomly.

Premature Atrial Contractions: Markers For Atrial Cardiomyopathy?

 

Through most of my cardiology life I had considered PACs to be totally benign. And certainly, in and of themselves they cause no problems other than occasional palpitations. However, studies in the last decade have shown consistent associations between frequent PACs and stroke, death and atrial fibrillation.

Some researchers have suggested the concept of “atrial cardiomyopathy” to explain this association. A diseased atrium could be the reason for PACs and atrial fibrillation as well as stroke and death as opposed to atrial fibrillation being the primary cause of increased cardiovascular events.

Clearly, PACS, stroke and CV disease share common risk factors such as age and obstructive sleep apnea making cause and effect difficult to sort out. Could PACs and atrial fibrillation represent different phenotypes of atrial cardiomyopathy?

These data on frequent PACs raise a whole host of questions which remain unanswered.

Is there a frequency of PACS ( say >100 per 24 hours) which is useful in predicting adverse outcomes?

Are there clinically measurable predictors of which  patients with frequent PACs are most likely to have to poor outcomes?

Does treatment of PACs (say with anticoagulation therapy or suppression) in the absence reduce risk of CV events?

The Bottom Line On PACs

 

  1. Premature atrial contractions are very common in normal individuals and increase with aging.
  2. They can cause palpitations and an irregular pulse but are benign in and of themselves.
  3.  Frequent PACs (more than 1% of total heart beats) are a marker of increased risk of atrial fibrillation, stroke, and death.
  4. The concept of a diseased atrium (atrial cardiomyopathy)  causing both atrial dysrhythmias and raising the risk of stroke and death helps to explain these associations.
  5. More research is needed to answer the important clinical questions related to the independent significance of frequent PACs and what treatments might be warranted.

Semipalpitatingly Yours,

-ACP

AliveCor’s KardiaBand Will No Longer Be Sold And Smart Rhythm Is No More

The skeptical cardiologist was quite enthusiastic about AliveCor’s Kardia Band for Apple Watch upon its release late in 2017.

I was able to easily make high fidelity, medical grade ECG recordings with it and its AI  algorithm was highly accurate at identifying atrial fibrillation  (see here). This accuracy was subsequently confirmed by research.

Many skepcard readers spent $200 dollars for the Kardia Band and had found it to be very helpful in the management of their atrial fibrillation.

However, in December of 2018 Apple added ECG recording to its Apple Watch 4, essentially building into the AW4  the features that Kardia Band had offered as an add on to earlier Apple Watch versions.

In my evaluation of the Apple Watch I found it to be “an amazingly easy, convenient and straightforward method for recording a single channel ECG” but its algorithm in comparison to AliveCor’s yielded more uncertain diagnoses.

Given it size, prominence and vast resources, Apple’s very publicized move into this area seemed likely to threaten the viability of AliveCor’s Kardia Band.

But then-interim CEO (and current COO)  Ira Bahr later told MobiHealthNews that his company’s broader business wasn’t threatened by its new direct competitor.

“We’re not convinced that Apple’s excellent, engaging product is a competitor yet,” he said in February. “We believe that from a price perspective, this product is least accessible to the people who need it most. If you’re not an Apple user, you’ve got to buy an Apple Watch, you’ve got to buy an iPhone to make the system work. So their technology is excellent, but we think the platform is both complicated and expensive and certainly not, from a marketing perspective, targeting the patient populations we target.”

Indeed, AliveCor’s Mobile ECG device and its recently released 6 lead ECG are doing very well but the threat to the viability of KardiaBand was real and MobiHealth News announced Aug. 19 that AliveCor had officially ended sales of the Kardia Band.

An AliveCor representative told MobiHealthNews that the company “plans to continue supporting KardiaBand indefinitely” for those who have already purchased the device. The company’s decision was first highlighted by former MobiHealthNews Editor Brian Dolan in an Exits and Outcomes report.

Mr. Bahr has confirmed to me that AliveCor does plan to continue supporting KardiaBand indefinitely. This includes replacement of KardiaBand parts.

Did Apple Kill Smart Rhythm?

The informed reader who notified me of AliveCor’s decision also notes:

The official reason is that they could not keep up with the Apple Watch updates and therefore the Smart Rhythm feature did not work properly.

I think many of us knew from the beginning that smart rhythm was not very accurate But in spite of that the Kardia band provided a valuable convenience over their other products.

It does appear that Smart Rhythm is no more.

AliveCor’s website was updated 6 days ago to state that Smart Rhythm was discontinued:

” due to changes beyond our control in the Apple Watch operating system, which caused SmartRhythm to perform below our quality standards”

Likely, as my reader was told, the frequent  AW4 updates plus the lack of a large KardiaBand user base made it unprofitable for AliveCor to continue to support Smart Rhythm.

Smart Rhythm, of course was AliveCor’s method for watch-based detection of atrial fibrillation. It clearly had limitations, including false positives but given AliveCor’s track record of dedication to high quality and accuracy I assumed it would improve over time..

Apple, on December 6, 2018  with the release of its watchOS 5.1.2 for AW4 announced its own version of Smart Rhythm at the same time it activated the ECG capability of AW4.

Apple called this feature “the irregular rhythm notification feature” and cited support for its accuracy from the widely ballyhooed Apple Heart Study (which I critiqued here.)

The irregular rhythm notification feature (TIRNF)was recently studied in the Apple Heart Study. With over 400,000 participants, the Apple Heart Study was the largest screening study on atrial fibrillation ever conducted, also making it one of the largest cardiovascular trials to date. A subset of the data from the Apple Heart Study was submitted to the FDA to support clearance of the irregular rhythm notification feature. In that sub-study, of the participants that received an irregular rhythm notification on their Apple Watch while simultaneously wearing an ECG patch, 80 percent showed AFib on the ECG patch and 98 percent showed AFib or other clinically relevant arrhythmias.

Despite widely publicized reports of lives being saved by TIRNF we still don’t know whether its benefits outweigh its harms. It is not clear what its sensitivity is for detecting atrial fibrillation and I have reported one patient who was in atrial fibrillation for 3 hours without her AW4 alerting her to its presence.

For AW4 users, absence of an alert should not provide reassurance that your rhythm is normal.

Thus is does appear that the Goliath Apple hath smote the David AliveCor in the watch-based afib battle. This does not bode well for consumers and patients as I think as competition in this area would make for better products and more accountability.

Philorhythmically Yours,

-ACP

N.B.

Per AliveCor the KardiaBand currently works with all all Apple Watches except the original one.

The Apple TIRNF per Apple:

is available for Apple Watch Series 1 and later and requires iPhone 5s or later on iOS 12.1.1 in the US, Puerto Rico, Guam and US Virgin Islands. The irregular rhythm notification feature does not detect a heart attack, blood clots, a stroke or other heart-related conditions including high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, high cholesterol or other forms of arrhythmia.