When it comes to the heart, there are three primary types of problems that patients may experience: circulatory, structural, and electrical. Blockages of the arteries, heart muscle disease, and congenital deformities are responsible for the first two and require treatment from a cardiologist which may include medication or surgical intervention. Electrical disorders, on the other hand, offer a unique set of challenges. In fact, so unique are these problems which affect heart rhythm, that they must be treated by a cardiology specialist known as an electrophysiologist (EP). Among the methodologies that electrophysiologists may use to treat such conditions is a technique known as cardiac ablation.
What is Cardiac Ablation?
Cardiac ablation is a procedure used to address certain heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias) that are unable to be treated with medication. It is low risk, typically performed in an outpatient setting, and frequently achieves good outcomes for the patient.
How is Cardiac Ablation Performed?
There are special cells located in the heart that create and send electrical signals to the heart’s chambers, instructing them when and how to beat. However, in some instances, abnormal cells can disrupt this system, sending signals that instruct the heart to beat irregularly or too rapidly. When this happens, patients may feel faint, weak, or short of breath. In severe cases, arrhythmia increases the likelihood of stroke or sudden cardiac death. EPs use cardiac ablation to treat these arrhythmias by passing a catheter through a vein or artery to the heart, where heat or extreme cold is used to destroy the specific area of heart tissue responsible, thereby restoring normal rhythm.
Which Heart Rhythm Disorders may be Treatable with Cardiac Ablation?
While not all forms of arrhythmia are treatable with cardiac ablation, there are many that are. The following are all conditions which may respond well to this particular treatment option:
Ventricular Tachycardia – A rapid heartrate arising from impulses within the heart’s ventricles. The condition can be life-threatening, as the fast heartbeat prevents the heart from filling adequately with blood and inhibits the ability of blood to circulate throughout the rest of the body.
Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) or Atrial Flutter – AFib is among the most common heart rhythm disorders, affecting over 2 million in the United States. Both AFib and atrial flutter lead to a rapid heartbeat in the atria. However, AFib causes the heart to quiver, whereas atrial flutter results in a very fast but steady heartbeat.
AV Nodule Reentrant Tachycardia (AVNRT) – Electrical impulses that move in a circle, re-entering areas they may have already passed through due to an extra pathway in or near the AV node. While AVNRT may only present symptoms occasionally or even not at all, it is when the condition manifests with frequent and ongoing symptoms that it should be addressed.
Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome - A congenital condition in which an extra electrical pathway connects the upper and lower chambers of the heart. While many with the syndrome never experience an increased heartrate, there are others for whom signals from the extra pathway will lead to a rapid heartbeat and potential complications.
For patients who experience symptoms from their heart rhythm disorder that are not alleviated by medication, cardiac ablation could be a viable option. Not only can the treatment protect the heart from future complications related to an abnormal rhythm, it can eliminate the troubling symptoms that often accompany such conditions.