Digoxin remains useful in the management of chronic heart failure.

Despite the introduction of a variety of new classes of drugs for the management of heart failure, digoxin continues to have an important role in long-term outpatient management. A wide variety of placebo-controlled clinical trials have unequivocally shown that treatment with digoxin can improve symptoms, quality of life, and exercise tolerance in patients with mild, moderate, or severe heart failure. These benefits are evident regardless of the underlying rhythm (normal sinus rhythm or atrial fibrillation), etiology of the heart failure, or concomitant therapy (eg. ACE inhibitors). Unlike other agents with positive inotropic properties, digoxin does not increase all-cause mortality and has a substantial benefit in reducing heart failure hospitalizations. Consensus guidelines have recently been published by the Heart Failure Society of America and the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association, and they contain the following recommendations for digoxin treatment: 1. Digoxin should be considered for the outpatient treatment of all patients who have persistent symptoms of heart failure (NYHA class II-IV) despite conventional pharmacologic therapy with diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and a beta-blocker when the heart failure is caused by systolic dysfunction (the strength of evidence = A for NYHA class II and III; strength of evidence = C for NYHA class IV). 2. Digoxin is not indicated as primary treatment for the stabilization of patients with acutely decompensated heart failure. (Strength of evidence = B). Digoxin may be initiated after emergent treatment of heart failure has been completed in an effort to establish a long-term treatment strategy. 3. Digoxin should not be administered to patients who have significant sinus or atrioventricular block, unless the block has been treated with a permanent pacemaker (strength of evidence = B). The drug should be used cautiously in patients who receive other agents known to depress sinus or atrioventricular nodal function (such as amiodarone or a beta-blocker) (strength of evidence = B). 4. The dosage of digoxin should be 0.125-0.25 mg daily in the majority of patients (strength of evidence = C). The lower dose should be used in patients over 70 years of age, those with impaired renal function, or those with a low lean body mass. Higher doses (eg, digoxin 0.375-0.50 mg daily) are rarely needed. Loading doses of digoxin are not necessary during initiation of therapy for patients with chronic heart failure. 5. Serial assessment of serum digoxin levels is unnecessary in most patients. The radioimmunoassay was developed to assist in the evaluation of toxicity, not the efficacy of the drug. There appears to be little relationship between serum digoxin concentration and the drug's therapeutic effects. 6. Digoxin toxicity is commonly associated with serum levels >2 ng/mL but may occur with lower digoxin levels if hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, or hypothyroidism coexist. Likewise, the concomitant use of agents such as quinidine, verapamil, spironolactone, flecainide, and amiodarone can increase serum digoxin levels and increase the likelihood of digoxin toxicity. 7. For patients with heart failure and atrial fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response, the administration of high doses of digoxin (>0.25 mg daily) for the purpose of rate control is not recommended. When necessary, additional rate control should be achieved by the addition of beta-blocker therapy or amiodarone (strength of evidence = C). If amiodarone is added, the dose of digoxin should be reduced. Digitalis preparations are now entering their fourth century of clinical use for the treatment of chronic heart failure symptoms. Its clinical efficacy can no longer be doubted and its safety has been verified by the multicenter DIG trial. Future advances in pharmacogenetics should facilitate identification of those patients most likely to benefit from its pharmacologic effects.
AuthorsG William Dec
JournalThe Medical clinics of North America (Med Clin North Am) Vol. 87 Issue 2 Pg. 317-37 (Mar 2003) ISSN: 0025-7125 [Print] United States
PMID12693728 (Publication Type: Journal Article, Review)
Chemical References
  • Cardiotonic Agents
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Digoxin
  • Cardiotonic Agents (adverse effects, pharmacology, therapeutic use)
  • Chronic Disease
  • Digoxin (adverse effects, pharmacology, therapeutic use)
  • Electrophysiology
  • Heart Conduction System (drug effects, physiopathology)
  • Heart Failure (drug therapy, mortality, physiopathology)
  • Humans
  • Neurotransmitter Agents (metabolism)
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome

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