New medical technique may treat atrial fibrillation

August 8, 2011

Medications can help but often stop working after a while. Doctors now have a new tool to help get these hearts back on track.

Michael Young has lived with atrial fibrillation since the 1990s. His racing, irregularly-beating heart would come and go.

"Sometimes, it was when I was exercising. Sometimes, it's late at night," Young said.

It would leave him dizzy and short of breath, but that wasn't what bothered him most.

"For me, the worst thing has been this kind of psychological thing," he said.

The fact that atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke kept Young up at night. Dr. Doug Packer, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says medications can help, but they often stop working or have side effects. Patients need more options.

"If a patient's heart is beating rapidly and irregularly, it is incredibly obnoxious. It is, in fact, a real hit on their quality of life," Packer said.

He's now using a new technique to fix the problem. First, a catheter is threaded up to veins in the heart, and a balloon is inflated. That balloon is cooled rapidly, which creates a freezing zone around the opening of the vein.

"If we can block off the electrical conduction from inside the vein to the rest of the heart, we can be successful in eliminating atrial fibrillation," Packer said.

Study results show a 70 percent success rate.

"It's the first time that this kind of an approach has been used to eliminate atrial fibrillation. If they are in the 70 percent where it works, the results are dramatic," Packer said.

Michael was in that 70 percent.

"A month now after the procedure, things are pretty quiet down there," Young said. Now, he can focus on his work and stop worrying about his heart.

The best candidates for this treatment, which is a form of ablation, are people who have atrial fibrillation that comes and goes with little underlying heart disease. Often, this new catheter procedure can fix the problem with just a single treatment, but doctor packer says sometimes a second treatment needs to be done.

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