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What Is Catheter Ablation?

Catheter ablation (ab-LA-shun) is a medical procedure used to treat some types of arrhythmia (ah-RITH-me-ah). An arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.

During catheter ablation, a series of catheters (thin, flexible wires) are put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck. The wires are guided into your heart through the blood vessel.

A special machine sends energy to your heart through one of the catheters. The energy destroys small areas of heart tissue where abnormal heartbeats may cause an arrhythmia to start.

Catheter ablation often involves radiofrequency (RF) energy. This type of energy uses radio waves to produce heat that destroys the heart tissue. Studies have shown that RF energy works well and is safe.

Overview

To understand catheter ablation, it helps to understand how the heart works. The heart's electrical system controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat.

Normally, with each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of your heart to the bottom. As it travels, the electrical signal causes your heart to contract and pump blood. The process repeats with each new heartbeat. (For more information, go to the Health Topics How the Heart Works article.)

A problem with any part of this process can cause an arrhythmia. Catheter ablation is one of several arrhythmia treatments. Your doctor may recommend ablation if:

  • The medicines you take don't control your arrhythmia.
  • You can't tolerate the medicine your doctor has prescribed for your arrhythmia.
  • You have certain types of arrhythmia. (Your doctor can tell you whether catheter ablation can help treat your arrhythmia.)
  • You have faulty electrical activity in your heart that raises your risk of ventricular fibrillation (v-fib) and sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). V-fib is a life-threatening arrhythmia. SCA is a condition in which your heart suddenly stops beating.

Catheter ablation has some risks. Bleeding, infection, and pain may occur at the catheter insertion site. More serious problems include blood clots and puncture of the heart. Your doctor will explain the risks to you.

Cardiologists (heart specialists) sometimes do ablation during open-heart surgery. This method isn't as common as catheter ablation, which doesn't require surgery to open the chest.

Outlook

Catheter ablation alone doesn't always restore a normal heart rate and rhythm. You may need other treatments as well. Also, some people who have the procedure may need to have it done again. This can happen if the first procedure doesn't fully correct the problem.

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Catheter Ablation Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Catheter Ablation, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

 
March 05, 2012 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.