How Atrial Fibrillation Is Treated

There are three primary treatment goals for atrial fibrillation: reset the heart rhythm or control its rate, prevent blood clots, and decrease the risk of strokes.

The rate-control approach is the default: it uses anticoagulants (blood thinners) and medications to control your heart rate. The rhythm-control approach attempts to restore and maintain a normal heart rhythm through electrical cardioversion, by using antiarrhythmic medications, or with invasive ablation techniques (see below).

Deciding on the "right" treatment for any individual with atrial fibrillation is most often a compromise, and the advantages and disadvantages of each will be weighed carefully by your healthcare team. Lifestyle changes aimed at preventing heart disease and stroke are also a part of treatment.

Operating room staff performing hospital surgery
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You may be prescribed medications that aim to reduce your risk of blood clots and strokes. Depending on the treatment approach, you may also be prescribed antiarrhythmic medications or heart rate control medications.

While many people with atrial fibrillation are given medication to reduce the risk of clots and stroke, that is not true for everyone. There are certain risk scores (for example, the CHA2DS2-VASc score) that are used to help predict a patient’s risk of stroke, and thus if they should be on a blood thinner.

Anticoagulant Medications

Warfarin (Coumadin) was once the standard oral medication for anticoagulant therapy. It works by inhibiting vitamin K, which is needed for the body to make many of the blood's clotting factors.

When on warfarin, you must have your blood tested frequently to see if the dose needs to be adjusted. If the dose is too low, you are at risk for clots and strokes. If it is too high, you are at risk for bleeding. One advantage of warfarin is that its effects can be quickly reversed by giving vitamin K.

Many foods, herbs, and supplements interfere with Coumadin, so you must pay special attention to dietary restrictions and report anything you are taking to your healthcare provider and pharmacist. In addition, many medications interfere with Coumadin as well. Be aware that any new medication you're prescribed should be checked to see if it interacts with Coumadin.

Novel anticoagulant (NOAC) drugs are a newer category that directly inhibits certain clotting factors. These drugs are now more frequently prescribed than warfarin. NOACs currently approved in the U.S. include:

  • Eliquis (apixaban)
  • Pradaxa (dabigatran)
  • Savaysa (edoxaban)
  • Xarelto (rivaroxaban)

They don't need frequent blood tests, dosage adjustments, or dietary restrictions. While just as effective as Coumadin, they are far more expensive.

Heart Rate Control Medications

Digitalis or Lanoxin (digoxin) used to be the standard prescription given to slow the heart rate. However, it is best for controlling heart rate when at rest and doesn't work as well during activity. The difference between a therapeutic dose and a toxic dose is small, so there is a significant risk of digoxin toxicity. You must be monitored regularly if you are on this drug.

The preferred alternative is now usually a combination of beta-blocking drugs or calcium channel blockers. Like digoxin, they work by slowing the conduction of the electrical impulse through the AV node, which reduces heart rate.

Antiarrhythmic Medications

Several antiarrhythmics are used intravenously to try to stop atrial fibrillation and restore a normal rhythm (an effort known as drug cardioversion). These include:

  • Corvert (ibutilide)
  • Rhythmol (propafenone)
  • Tambocor (flecainide)
  • Tikosyn (dofetilide)
  • Pacerone, Nexterone (amiodarone)

However, these drugs will successfully restore a normal rhythm only 50% to 60% of the time, and they can have side effects.

Your healthcare provider may also prescribe oral antiarrhythmic medications after cardioversion (either drug or electrical—see below). These might be taken on an ongoing or as-needed basis when you feel symptoms. In addition to the drugs used in drug cardioversion, sotalol may also be used in these cases.

These medications can cause nausea, dizziness, and fatigue, and there is a rare risk they will cause dangerous ventricular arrhythmias.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

Aspirin is available over the counter (OTC) and may be recommended in rare cases for use as an anticoagulant. It works by inhibiting platelets, the cells that come together to form a clot.

Aspirin poses a risk of bleeding, like other anticoagulants. You must be sure to take only the dosage recommended.

When you are on anticoagulant therapy, you must take extra care when using any OTC cold, flu, allergy, or sleep products. Sometimes they contain aspirin, which could interact with anticoagulants. Be sure to discuss any OTC medications with your healthcare provider.

Surgery and Specialist-Driven Procedures

There are several procedures that may be performed under different circumstances, depending on your treatment approach and many other factors.

Electrical Cardioversion

Electrical cardioversion may be performed in an emergency situation or when medications haven't worked to restore the heart's normal rhythm. You will be placed in a light, anesthesia-induced sleep while the healthcare provider administers an electrical shock to your chest using a set of paddles. This procedure is painless, quick, safe, and nearly always effective.

Catheter Ablation

The ablation procedure aims to kill the cells creating an abnormal rhythm. The source of your arrhythmia is mapped, localized, and then destroyed by using cauterization or freezing through a long thin tube (catheter). Ablation is performed either during an electrophysiology study or in the surgical suite.

While many forms of cardiac arrhythmias have become readily curable using ablation techniques, atrial fibrillation has remained a challenge. The three-year success rate is 50% and can be as high as 80% with repeated procedures. However, these rates are similar to the success rates of antiarrhythmic drug therapy. The ablation procedure also has risks, including stroke, bleeding, and death, which must be considered.

Maze Procedure

The surgical maze procedure is performed during open-heart surgery. It uses incisions, radiofrequency, or cryotherapy to create scars on the upper chambers of the heart to disrupt the electrical signals that create arrhythmia.

Due to the risks of open-heart surgery, it is usually recommended only for those who don't respond to other treatments or when open-heart surgery is required for another cardiac problem.


Some people with atrial fibrillation may benefit from having a pacemaker implanted to regulate their heartbeat. This is most often done if you have a slow heart rate, called bradycardia. This can develop during treatment with antiarrhythmic drugs, in which case a pacemaker might be a temporary measure while getting the drug levels up to the desired point. Or it may be needed permanently.

Left Atrial Appendage Closure

This catheter procedure aims to reduce the risk of blood clots that typically form in the left atrial appendage, which is a small sac in the upper-left heart chamber. A small device is inserted to close the sac. In addition, patients who have atrial fibrillation and need to undergo open-heart surgery can have their left atrial appendage surgically closed.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

You can do many things to take control of your health when you have atrial fibrillation. These can reduce your symptoms and improve your condition, as well as reduce your risks of heart disease and stroke.

Lifestyle changes are part of the recommended treatment program. They include:

  • Adopt a heart-healthy eating pattern. This may be a Mediterranean-style diet or the DASH diet, which reduces salt to help keep your blood pressure under control.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight. Even a 10% reduction can help improve your condition.
  • Get regular exercise and reduce the time you spend sitting.
  • Use stress management strategies, since stress and anxiety can worsen symptoms.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Only drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Do not use street drugs.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

There are CAM therapies that might have benefits for atrial fibrillation. Yoga, acupuncture, and relaxation-based therapies show the most promise. These have the advantage of being safe from interactions with medications. However, they should only be used as adjuncts to standard medical therapy.

There is more risk if you use herbal medicines or dietary supplements since you must be careful to avoid interactions with medications. Be sure that you report everything you take to your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

A Word From Verywell

If you have atrial fibrillation, there's a lot to consider in choosing the right treatment approach: the severity of your symptoms; your underlying medical and cardiac problems, if any; the frequency and duration of your episodes of atrial fibrillation; your personal preferences; and the opinions of your healthcare providers. Talk with your healthcare team to find the right treatment decisions for your individual situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will atrial fibrillation go away on its own?

    Sometimes. If atrial fibrillation is the result of a transitory condition, such as surgery, it may resolve on its own as you recover. Atrial fibrillation that comes and goes is called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. That said, check with your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing heart rhythm symptoms that last for longer than a few minutes at a time or longer than a week overall.

  • Does atrial fibrillation get worse over time?

    Some cases of atrial fibrillation will resolve on their own—this may happen if the cause is a transient trigger or one-time event, such as surgery. However, if persistent atrial fibrillation goes untreated, it can progress to more serious or even life-threatening conditions.

  • What kinds of medications treat atrial fibrillation?

    There are three main classes of medications that can help with atrial fibrillation symptoms and complications: drugs that help stabilize the heart’s rate (such as beta blockers), those that regulate its rhythm (including antiarrhythmic drugs such as sotalol), and drugs that prevent blood clots (such as warfarin).

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.