Having Catheter Ablation

A heart rhythm problem (arrhythmia) can make your heart beat too fast or in an irregular pattern. The problem is often caused by cells in your heart that aren’t working as they should. Or, it may be the result of an abnormal electric circuit. It may cause bothersome symptoms, such as an irregular heartbeat, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, or fainting. Your doctor has recommended catheter ablation to treat your arrhythmia. This non-surgical procedure destroys the cells that are causing the problem.

Before the procedure

Cross section of heart showing catheters inserted into right atrium. One catheter is destroying tissue on atrium wall.

Before your catheter ablation, you will meet with the cardiac electrophysiologist (specially trained heart doctor) who will do the procedure. He or she will tell you how to get ready. You will likely be told to stop or change your heart rhythm medicines for a period of time before the procedure. Follow your doctor’s instructions. Also:

  • Tell the doctor about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines you take. This includes herbs, supplements, and vitamins. It also includes daily medicines, such as insulin or blood thinners. If you are allergic to any medicines, tell the doctor.

  • Have any routine tests, such as blood tests, as recommended.

  • Don’t eat or drink anything 12 hours before the procedure.

How catheter ablation is done

Catheter ablation uses thin, flexible wires (electrode catheters) to find and destroy (ablate) problem cells. Here’s how the procedure is done:

  • The heart’s signals are mapped. To find the problem, an electrophysiology study (EPS) is done. During this study, the doctor tries to start (induce) your arrhythmia. An electrical map of the heart is then created. This shows the type of arrhythmia you have and where the problem is. Using the map as a guide, the doctor knows where to ablate.

  • Problem areas are destroyed using heat or cold therapy. Once the EPS shows where the problem is, an electrode catheter is thread through a blood vessel to that area in the heart. Energy is sent through the catheter to destroy the problem cells.

  • The heart’s rhythm is tested again. After ablating the problem cells, the doctor tries to restart (reinduce) your arrhythmia. If a fast rhythm can’t be induced, the ablation is a success. But if a fast rhythm does start again, further ablation may be needed.

Your experience during catheter ablation

In most cases, catheter ablation is done in an electrophysiology (EP) lab. It often takes 2 to 4  hours, and sometimes longer. You’ll receive medicine to prevent pain. Medicine will also help you relax or sleep during the procedure. If you feel uncomfortable during the procedure, tell the doctor or nurse:

  • Getting started. First, skin on your groin (or rarely, the neck) is washed. Any hair in that area may be removed. This is where the catheters will be inserted. An IV (intravenous) line is started in your arm. Medicines and fluids are provided through this IV. To help keep the insertion site germ-free (sterile), your body is draped with sheets. Only the area where the catheters will be inserted is exposed.

  • Inserting the catheters. The skin where the catheters will be inserted is numbed with a local anesthetic. This is so you won’t feel pain. Then a small needle is used to make punctures in your vein or artery. Catheters are inserted through these punctures and guided to the heart with the help of X-ray monitors.

  • Wires are then placed in various places in the heart to map the electrical signals as well as to stimulate the heart.

  • Finishing up. When the procedure is finished, the catheters are taken out of your body. Pressure is applied to the puncture sites to stop any bleeding. No stitches are needed. You’re then taken to a recovery room to rest. You’ll need to remain lying down for a few hours. You’ll be asked not to move the leg where the catheters were inserted for a few hours. 

Risks and complications

The risks of catheter ablation are fairly low compared to the benefits you receive. Discuss these risks with your doctor before the procedure. Possible risks and complications include:

  • Bleeding or bruising at the catheter insertion site

  • Blood clots

  • A slow heart rhythm (requiring a permanent pacemaker)

  • Perforation of the heart muscle, blood vessel, or lung (may require an emergency procedure)

  • Damage to a heart valve (rare)

  • Stroke or heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI (rare)

  • Infection, which is a risk after any invasive procedure. This may be indicated by a fever of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher, drainage, or redness and pain at the catheter insertion site.

  • Death (extremely rare)


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