Catheter ablation is a procedure used to selectively destroy areas of the heart that are causing a heart rhythm problem. During this procedure, thin, flexible wires are inserted into a blood vessel in the thigh, groin, neck, or elbow and threaded up through the blood vessel and into the heart under X-ray guidance. The wires allow the doctor to record the electrical activity of your heart and determine what kind of heart rhythm problem you have.
Then, your doctor will find the tiny areas that are causing the rhythm problem. The wires are used to send energy to those areas in the heart. This energy is in the form of heat or freezing cold. The heat or cold destroys, or ablates, the heart tissue. Destroying this tissue can cure your heart rhythm problem.
Catheter ablation can be called different names based on the type of energy used to create the heat or cold. If heat from radio waves is used, it is called radiofrequency catheter ablation. If cold temperatures are used, it is called cryoablation.
Catheter ablation is done in a hospital where the person can be carefully monitored. The procedure is done with an electrophysiology (EP) study, which can identify specific areas of heart tissue where the fast heart rate may start or where abnormal electrical pathways are located inside or outside the atrioventricular (AV) node. This allows doctors to pinpoint exactly what tiny area of heart muscle to destroy.
A local anesthetic is used at the site where the catheter is inserted. The person usually stays awake during the procedure but may be sedated.
For help on the decision to have catheter ablation, see:
Recovery from catheter ablation is usually quick. Some people may be hospitalized for 1 to 2 days after the procedure so doctors can monitor heart rate and rhythm. Many people go home the same day.
Catheter ablation is often used for people with persistent or recurrent fast heart rates that do not respond to drug therapy, or people with certain types of fast heart rates who do not want to take medicine.
Catheter ablation can eliminate atrioventricular nodal reciprocating tachycardia (AVNRT), a type of supraventricular tachycardia, in almost all cases.
Catheter ablation is often recommended for people with a type of atrioventricular reciprocating tachycardia (AVRT) called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, especially those who have severe symptoms or also have atrial fibrillation or flutter. This procedure can successfully eliminate WPW most of the time. There is a small risk of the arrhythmia recurring even after successful ablation of WPW. But a second session of catheter ablation is usually successful.
Catheter ablation is considered safe.
It has some serious risks, but they are rare. They include:
You will have to decide whether the possible benefits of ablation outweigh these risks. Your doctor can help you decide.
In catheter ablation for atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia (AVNRT), damage to the heart's conduction system requires a permanent pacemaker in about 1 out of 100 people.1 With other types of supraventricular tachycardia, where the abnormal cells are not close to the heart's normal conduction system, there is almost no risk of needing a pacemaker.
Death from this procedure is exceedingly rare.
Last Revised: August 9, 2010
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