Saturday, March 30, 2019

NEJM Case: Brain, Heart, and Parsimony

Cardiology factors prominently in psychiatry and psychiatric care. I have been fortunate on many occasions to work with psychiatrists who were also cardiologists and to have access to outstanding cardiologists as consultants. That gave me a great appreciation for what was possible in the detection treatment of cardiac problems. It also help me appreciate the importance of treating psychiatric disorders in patients with cardiac problems. The recognition that some medications can cause problems and the need for ECG screening was another change in psychiatric practice. Prior to that knowledge, there were some medications that delayed cardiac conduction to the point that they are no longer used.

One of the commonest scenarios I currently see is at the interface of anxiety and the effect it has on the heart. About 20 to 30% of the people I see have severe anxiety and panic attacks. About two thirds of them have made at least one trip to the emergency department because they thought they were experiencing a heart attack. They are generally young people with limited cardiac risk factors. When I asked them about the symptoms that led them to the ED, the most common answer is “my heart was pounding out of my chest and I thought I was having a heart attack”. Palpitations are another common symptom. They are harder to get at and people who have talked to cardiologists are better at describing them. I demonstrate by making an irregular thumping noise on my chest with my hand to indicate what it might feel like. The associated symptoms of panic attacks like swelling, lightheadedness, dizziness, chest tightness, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, and dizziness all reinforce the thought of a heart attack. Once the ED staff determine the patient is having a panic attack the way they are educated is critical in reducing ongoing symptoms. But that is another story.

An associated symptom in anxiety is what I like to call “cardiac awareness”. It happens in anxious people whether they have an anxiety disorder diagnosis or a stressor making them anxious. Laying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep many people can sense their heart beating without taking their pulse. They can sense other pulse points in the body and frequently they can sense large pulsations. This is a normal physiological process but anxiety can lead to a focus on it. I also lead to attaching other meetings to it such as the occasional palpitation is seen as evidence of heart disease leading to increased anxiety. In that situation it becomes very difficult to sleep leading to more anxiety and frequently - a faster heart rate the next day.

Cardiac pathology can compound the problem because there are various conditions like atrial fibrillation that can lead to people paying much more attention to their heart rate and rhythm. Atrial fibrillation is interesting in that regard because there are two management strategies. In a rate control strategy the person is given a medication to generally keep their heart rate less than 100 bpm but the rhythm could still be irregular and experienced as frequent palpitations. In a rhythm control strategy the person is either given a medication or treatment to maintain a regular sinus rhythm and palpitations would be much less frequent to nonexistent. Current thinking on treating atrial fibrillation is that the outcomes of both strategies are equivalent in terms of mortality but that patients with a rhythm control strategy rate themselves as having a higher quality of life.

That brings me to the New England Journal of Medicine case listed in the references below.  This case continues a recent trend in incorporating more psychiatric expertise into these cases with psychiatrists as discussants. The patient was a 62-year-old man with depression and anxiety. The depression dated back 15 years with onset after he learned that his wife had cancer. His wife eventually died. Whichever psychiatrist are about seven years and eventually found that citalopram and clonazepam are effective. He continued with his primary care physician and eventually discontinued the citalopram. He was seen by one of the discussants due to recurrent anxiety depression and lethargy. Vital signs were noted to be abnormal with an irregular pulse of 130 bpm blood pressure 108/75. An ECG was done that showed new onset of atrial fibrillation. 

Echocardiography showed an enlarged left atrium and left ventricle, low normal LV ejection fraction, mild left ventricular hypertrophy, and no valvular disease. The subsequent ECG showed a prolonged QTc interval of 466 ms. At a subsequent visit he had an additional significant stressor also had started to binge drink. At that time he had weekly panic attacks that correlated with increased alcohol intake. When he was seen in the psychiatric clinic had weekly panic attacks that consisted of “racing heart, lightheadedness, restlessness, shaking, and generalized weakness and so the episodes lasted for several hours. A family history of depression and suicide was noted. He was noted to be drinking 4 to 6 standard drinks per week with occasional binges. Aripiprazole was added to the clonazepam and citalopram.

The patient subsequently had a near syncopal episode three weeks later I was noted to be hypertensive and tachycardic. The ECG showed atrial fibrillation and sinus pauses of six and seven seconds. A permanent pacemaker was placed in the metoprolol was discontinued.

He was noted to be improved on the psychiatric medication changes but the metoprolol is discontinued because of fatigue. Three weeks later he had increasing anxiety and the feeling that his heart was racing and “thumping” in his chest and that he was excessively worried. They aripiprazole was increased at that time.

Like most of these cases there is a differential diagnosis exercise included and the discussant in this case is a psychiatrist.  The exercise focuses on the fact that the central symptoms in this case-anxiety, palpitations, racing heart, restlessness, and fatigue are not specific for cardiac or psychiatric diagnosis. In fact all DSM diagnoses included criteria to rule out any medical causes of the syndrome. In this case all the usual suspects are discussed. From the medical side hyperthyroidism, return atrial fibrillation, dilated cardiomyopathy, Torsade de pointes, and rare medical causes are discussed. The duration of the patient’s symptoms rules out a lot of the acute causes. From psychiatric standpoint panic disorder, substance intoxication, and substance withdrawal were the primary considerations. The discussant Dr. Chen uses the term that we don’t hear enough of lately and that is parsimony specifically “The best diagnosis would parsimoniously explain the patient’s symptoms and the time course of his illness”. He concludes that there is a clear correlation with discontinuing metoprolol and experiencing recurrent atrial fibrillation.

From a cardiology standpoint the decision was made to improve rhythm control with sotalol and the rationale for choosing that agent was provided. He experienced a decrease number of episodes of atrial fibrillation that he was correlating with anxiety.

The discussion highlights the correlation of anxiety with atrial fibrillation. That anxiety is a product of experiencing the palpitations and also can be an etiological factor in the episodes of atrial fibrillation. Depression and anxiety also predict who experiences more severe symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Patient medications also discussed in terms of the prolonged QTc interval. The authors comment on the FDA warning about QTc prolongation with higher doses of citalopram. They point out that although citalopram prolongs QTc interval more than other antidepressants there is little evidence that it leads to torsade de pointes or sudden cardiac death. They also point out that the literature shows that when this warning led to decreasing the dose of citalopram the result was no worsening of cardiac outcomes but less than optimal psychiatric outcomes including more frequent hospitalizations and increased sedative hypnotic prescriptions.

Overall this was an excellent discussion of the cardiology-psychiatry interface. Psychiatrists are likely to see increasing numbers of patients with atrial fibrillation. I currently see number of patients who are taking multiple cardiac medications. Any patient with this degree of complexity it is important to discuss the possibilities in order to determine the likely sequence of events. In patients with cardiac risk factors who are hypertensive and appear to be describing panic attacks caution is necessary to make sure that there are no underlying cardiac conditions that need to be attended to. As illustrated in this case I have seen patients with severe panic attacks (but no atrial fibrillation) due to the abrupt discontinuations of metoprolol. In patients who have recently discontinued antihypertensive therapy and have panic attacks - clarifying whether there has been any exposure to beta blockers is important.  

Another relevant factor in this patient's demographic is that the sympathetic tone of the peripheral nervous system in humans seems to increase with age. That may predispose older populations to tachycardia, palpitations, hypertension, and anxiety either directly or indirectly by experiencing the cardiac symptoms.

Being able to make an assessment and determination of patient stability, whether or not they need urgent care, what further testing is needed, and what further referrals are necessary is a skill that every psychiatrist should have.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Chen JA, Ptaszek LM, Celano CM, Beach SR. Case 9-2019: A 62-Year-Old Man with Atrial Fibrillation, Depression, and Worsening Anxiety. N Engl J Med. 2019 Mar 21;380(12):1167-1174. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcpc1900140. PubMed PMID: 30893540. Full Text

See also for the critical references in this case.

Graphics Credit:

The human heart line drawing in the above graphic is from Shutterstock per their standard agreement.

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