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What is Cardiac Ablation: Fixing a Heart’s Short Circuit
Medically reviewed by Rajesh Malik, MD
Flutter. Fibrillation. Tachycardia.
All three terms describe a problem, when the heart muscles aren’t receiving the proper electrical signals. The result? Erratic heart beats. Some of the most common occur in the upper chamber of the heart – the atrium. In Atrial Fibrillation or Atrial Flutter, wayward electrical signals send the heart beating about 300 times a minute – 4 times the normal rate.
Some abnormal heart rhythms can be treated with medication or a change in lifestyle. Unfortunately, these treatments are not always successful.
“Luckily, there is a treatment called cardiac ablation that can be used for arrhythmias in the upper chamber of the heart,” says McLeod Electrophysiologist Rajesh Malik, MD. “To fix this electrical short circuit, we need to go into the heart and eliminate the faulty or extra pulses.”
First, the patient has an Electrophysiology (EP) study by placing small wires through a blood vessel into the heart to map the electrical paths and pulses.
When the problem pulses or locations are identified, tissue causing the short circuit is destroyed – returning the heart’s rhythm to normal.
The Electrophysiologist uses one of several methods to “ablate” the tissue:
- Radiofrequency ablation. An electrical signal is sent through the catheter into the heart, creating heat, similar to a microwave. The heat destroys the abnormal tissue, leaving small lesions.
- Cryoablation. Rather than heat, this technique uses cold directed through a probe into the heart, freezing the abnormal tissue.
On some patients, the ablation is performed while the patient is having the EP study. Other times, a patient is scheduled for the ablation at a later appointment.
Depending on the arrhythmia, the procedure can last one to four hours – a patient may feel some minor discomfort and light-headedness. As the procedure progresses, the patient may feel their heart beat change.
After the procedure, the patient lies flat in a recovery area for several hours and is usually sent home the same day. They’ll feel fatigue and an achy chest for a few days. They may also notice the heart adjusting to its new pattern.
Sources include: McLeod Health, National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, Canadian Heart Rhythm Society, Heart Rhythm Society (US).