What is the ACLS Approach to Atrial Fibrillation? (Advanced Cardiac Life Support)

A week or so ago I re-certified in ACLS – Advanced Cardiac Life Support. ACLS is a set of emergency clinical interventions for cardiac arrest, stroke, respiratory arrest, etc., which is basically a step above BLS (Basic Life Support – formerly known as CPR). ACLS certification, in my case anyway, is done through the American Heart Association, and is only open to health care providers: doctors, nurses, dentists, advanced practice providers like PAs and nurse practitioners, EMTs, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and so on.

I thought I’d write about it in this blog so people might know what to expect as far as the type of treatment they might experience if they have an unstable episode of atrial fibrillation.

I’m in permanent atrial fibrillation, so when I’m in one of these classes I’m glad I’m not hooked up to an EKG – I don’t feel like getting medicated or shocked!

ACLS deals with various problems using algorithms, so let’s look at the “Tachycardia with a Pulse Algorithm” which would generally apply to acute atrial fibrillation.

ACLS-tach

So basically we start with a person with a fast heart rate. Tachycardia is, by definition, a pulse over 100 beats per minute, but for ACLS purposes it generally means a pulse over 150 bpm. Obviously not all tachycardia (fast heart rate) is atrial fibrillation.

For this article I am not discussing the other types of tachycardia, even though they are in the algorithm. I assume most people reading this blog are dealing with atrial fibrillation.

The first step is to assess the patient, identify and treat any underlying cause, make sure the patient is breathing effectively, assist if necessary, and give the patient some oxygen.

Now the next step is very important – is the patient stable? Five things: 1.) Is the blood pressure too low? 2.) Is there altered mental status (confusion)? 3.) Is the patient going into shock? 4.) Chest pain? 5.) Heart failure?

Even though I am in atrial fibrillation, all the time, I don’t have any of these symptoms. But if the patient is unstable and have tachycardia, basically, they are going to be getting some electricity! That means synchronized cardioversion, and in the case of atrial fibrillation (see “narrow irregular”) that means 120-200 joules – that’s a big shock!

Check out this video of cardioversion for atrial fibrillation – yikes!

Notice that it says “consider sedation.” Sedation can be considered, but not if it interferes with getting the unstable patient shocked as soon as possible. If you go into unstable atrial fibrillation at a race expect that the sedation will likely be skipped and get ready to be ZAPPED.

Photo by Ted Friedman.

Photo by Ted Friedman.

This is for unstable tachycardia – that means the patient is in some sort of crisis that may eventually be life threatening.

For an episode of stable atrial fibrillation expect vagal maneuvers and a referral to a cardiologist. Vagal maneuvers include firm carotid sinus massage, coughing, gagging, valsalva maneuver (holding your breath and “bearing down”), and placing your face in ice water (snow also works). A lot of people with intermittent atrial fibrillation already know how to do this.

For a great article about her episode of unstable atrial fib see Run, Smile, Drink Water and Don’t Die – A Guest Post by JoAnna Brogdon.

I’d be very interested in anybody else’s experience with unstable atrial fibrillation and what type of treatment was administered. Please comment below. Thanks.

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