When your heart beats, the electrical impulses that cause it to contract must follow a precise pathway through your heart. Any interruption in these impulses can cause an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), which can sometimes be treated with cardiac ablation. Ablation isn't usually your first treatment option. Ablation is a treatment option for people who:
- Have tried medications to treat an arrhythmia without success
- Have had serious side effects from medications to treat arrhythmias
- Have certain types of arrhythmias that respond well to ablation, such as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome
- Have a high risk of complications from their arrhythmias, such as sudden cardiac arrest
Cardiac ablation does carry risks, which include:
- Bleeding or infection at the site where your catheter was inserted
- Damage to your blood vessels where the catheter may have scraped as it traveled to your heart
- Puncture of your heart
- Damage to your heart valves
- Damage to your heart's electrical system, which could worsen your arrhythmia and require a pacemaker to correct
- Blood clots in the legs or lungs (venous thromboembolism)
- Stroke or heart attack
- Narrowing of the veins that carry blood between your lungs and heart (pulmonary vein stenosis)
- Damage to your kidneys from dye used during the procedure
- Death in rare cases
Your risk of having these complications may increase if you have diabetes or kidney disease.
Your doctor will evaluate you and may order several tests to evaluate your heart condition. Your doctor will discuss with you the risks and benefits of cardiac ablation.
You'll need to stop eating and drinking about six to eight hours before your procedure. If you take any medications, ask your doctor if you should continue taking them before your procedure.
Your doctor will let you know if you need to follow any other special instructions before or after your procedure. In some cases, you'll be instructed to stop taking medications to treat a heart arrhythmia several days before your procedure.
If you have an implanted heart device, such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, talk to your doctor to see if you need to take any special precautions.
During the procedure
Catheter ablation is performed in the hospital. Before your procedure begins, a specialist will insert an intravenous line into your forearm or hand, and you'll be given a sedative to help you relax.
After your sedative takes effect, your doctor or another specialist will numb a small area near a vein on your groin, neck or forearm. Your doctor will insert a needle into the vein and place a tube (sheath) through the needle.
Your doctor will thread catheters through the sheath and guide them to several places within your heart. Your doctor may inject dye into the catheter, which helps your doctor to see your blood vessels and heart using X-ray imaging.
The catheters have electrodes at the tips that will be used during the procedure. Once in place, the electrodes will send electrical impulses to your heart and record your heart's electrical activity. This will help your doctor to find the abnormal heart tissue that is causing the arrhythmia in your heart.
Once the abnormal heart tissue that's causing the arrhythmia is identified, your doctor will aim the catheter tips at the area of abnormal heart tissue. Energy will travel through the catheter tips to create a scar or destroy the tissue that triggers your arrhythmia.
In some cases, ablation blocks the electrical signals traveling through your heart to stop the abnormal rhythm and allow signals to travel over a normal pathway instead.
The energy used in your procedure can come from:
- Heat (radiofrequency)
- Extreme cold (cryoablation)
Cardiac ablation usually takes two to four hours to complete, but complicated procedures may take longer. During the procedure, it's possible you'll feel some minor discomfort when the dye is injected in your catheter or when energy is run through the catheter tips. If you experience any type of severe pain or shortness of breath, you should alert the cardiologist performing the procedure.
After the procedure
Following your procedure, you'll be moved to a recovery area where you'll need to lie still for four to six hours to prevent bleeding at your catheter site. Your heartbeat and blood pressure will be monitored continuously to check for complications of the procedure.
Depending on your condition, you may be able to go home the same day as your procedure, or you may need to stay in the hospital for one day. If you go home the same day, plan to have someone else drive you home after your procedure.
You may feel a little sore after your procedure, but the soreness shouldn't last more than a week. You'll usually be able to return to your normal activities within a few days after having cardiac ablation.
Although cardiac ablation can be successful, some people need repeat procedures. You may also need to take medications, even after you've had ablation.
To keep your heart healthy, you may need to make lifestyle changes that improve the overall health of your heart, especially to prevent or treat conditions that can cause or worsen arrhythmias, such as high blood pressure. Your doctor may suggest that you:
- Avoid caffeine
- Use less salt, which can help lower blood pressure
- Increase your physical activity
- Quit smoking
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- Eat heart-healthy foods
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage strong emotions, such as anger