Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common arrhythmia managed by emergency physicians. There is increasing evidence that most patients with recent-onset AF or atrial flutter (AFL) can be safely managed in the emergency department (ED) without the need for hospital admission. The priorities for ED management of recent-onset AF/AFL include rapid assessment of potential hemodynamic instability and identification and treatment of the underlying or precipitating cause. A careful evaluation of the patient's history should be performed to determine the time of onset of the arrhythmia. All patients should be stratified using a predictive index for the risk of stroke (eg, CHADS2). For stable patients with recent-onset AF/AFL, a strategy of either rate control or rhythm control could be selected based on multiple factors including the duration of AF and the severity of symptoms. If a strategy of rhythm control has been selected, either electrical or pharmacologic cardioversion may be used. Before proceeding to cardioversion in the absence of systemic anticoagulation, physicians must be confident that the duration of AF/AFL is clearly 48 hours or uncertain, rate control should be optimized first and the patients should receive therapeutic anticoagulation for 3 weeks before and 4 weeks after planned cardioversion. Adequate follow-up of patients with recent-onset AF/AFL is recommended to identify structural heart disease and evaluate the need for long-term antithrombotic or antiarrhythmic therapy. © 2011 Canadian Cardiovascular Society.
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