In the first half of this post I emphasized a few points about AF. It can be triggered by a variety of non-cardiac sources - hypovolemia, alcohol, and especially sepsis can all exacerbate chronic AF, or provoke a new episode. You can cardiovert a hypotensive AF patient with any of those problems, and it might (might) fix the rhythm, but it would be unlikely to correct the underlying issue.
Need another example? Alright, how about AF and an ECG that suggests STEMI?
AF and proven STEMIs - first case
The examples above weren't actually hypotensive, but this last patient was.
An elderly patient with a history of paroxysmal AF was transported by EMS for acute onset dyspnea, chest and abdominal pain. Things got more complicated when she arrested right upon arrival in the ED.
|Not the patient - this is me when the patient arrests 10 seconds after arrival.|
The patient had a pressure of 80/50 - what should the team have done next? If you say cardioversion, what would you have done if the first attempt didn't work? (or the second?)
(Also, does it help if you know that the prehospital ECG looked like this?)
|Anything jumping out at you?|
AF and proven STEMIs - second case
I've talked about this case before, so I'll be brief. Midlle-aged woman, acute onset chest symptoms:
However, once the medic brought the rapid ventricular response (RVR) down a bit, and the symptoms improved a little, the computer message disappeared when the repeat ECG was obtained...
... but not the ST elevations, nor their apparent reciprocal changes. Her old ECG showed very normal inferior ST segments, supporting the diagnosis of an acute STEMI. During the emergent PCI, they found that an old stent in her RCA was 100% occluded.
On the other hand...
Some physicians are fairly skeptical about ST changes that are found in AF with RVR. As with other arrhythmias, you can end up with a variety of ST changes that resolve with the tachycardia. PSVT very commonly produces ST depressions, even in young folks with no heart disease.
For example, despite the dramatic ST depressions (and aVR elevation!), this patient...
|ECG from a great case at EMS 12-Lead|
Stephen Smith, of Dr. Smith's ECG blog, also voices wariness about calling a STEMI in AF with RVR. He has a great case at his site that illustrates the lesson that, if the patient is losing units of blood from their GI tract, the cath lab is probably not the best first stop, even if the ECG computer is trying to tell you otherwise!
|Pictured: Not a cath lab candidate.|
Ah, good question, and I wish I had some hard and fast answers. I don't know of any research that looks at this issue, and the experts can disagree. It's often going to depend on the clinical context, as well as evolutions in the ECG findings, echocardiograms, and comparisons with old ECGs - all of which are hard to do in the back of a rig!
The Bottom Line
This is a cornerstone of emergency medicine - if the rhythm is fast, and the patient is not doing well, and you think they are not doing well because of that rhythm, then the patient should be cardioverted.
(Repeat - "they are not doing well because of that rhythm..." Important!)
This is clearly supported in our SHCGB protocols:
But we have seen in these posts a number of examples where cardioversion probably wouldn't have been effective, since the underlying medical issues needed treatment. Cardioversion isn't going to treat low magnesium, hypovolemia, and especially not sepsis!
Cardioversion for hemodynamically unstable AF is reasonable, but this isn't as "simple" as ventricular fibrillation. You need to consider the causes and aggressively treat them, and be ready with a "plan B."