Catheter Ablation for Atrial Fibrillation

Treatment Overview

Catheter ablation is a minimally invasive procedure to treat atrial fibrillation. It can relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

During a catheter ablation, the doctor destroys tiny areas in the heart that are firing off abnormal electrical impulses and causing atrial fibrillation.

You will be given medicine to help you relax. A local anesthetic will numb the site where the catheter is inserted. Sometimes, general anesthesia is used. The procedure is done in a hospital where you can be watched carefully.

Thin, flexible wires called catheters are inserted into a vein, typically in the groin or neck, and threaded up into the heart. There is an electrode at the tip of the wires. The electrode sends out radio waves that create heat. This heat destroys the heart tissue that causes atrial fibrillation or the heart tissue that keeps it happening. Another option is to use freezing cold to destroy the heart tissue.

Sometimes, abnormal impulses come from inside a pulmonary vein and cause atrial fibrillation. (The pulmonary veins bring blood back from the lungs to the heart.) Catheter ablation in a pulmonary vein can block these impulses and keep atrial fibrillation from happening.

AV node ablation

AV node ablation is a slightly different type of ablation procedure for atrial fibrillation. AV node ablation can control symptoms of atrial fibrillation in some people. It might be right for you if medicine has not worked, catheter ablation did not stop your atrial fibrillation, or you cannot have catheter ablation. With AV node ablation, the entire atrioventricular (AV) node is destroyed. After the AV node is destroyed, it can no longer send impulses to the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles). This controls atrial fibrillation symptoms.

After AV node ablation, a permanent pacemaker is needed to regulate your heart rhythm. Nodal ablation can control your heart rate and reduce your symptoms, but it does not prevent or cure atrial fibrillation. AV node ablation helps about 9 out of 10 people.footnote 1 The procedure has a low risk of serious problems.footnote 2

How It Is Done

Catheter ablation

How the heart's electrical system works

Electrical system of the heart
slide 1 of 5
    
slide 1 of 5, How the heart's electrical system works,

In a normal heart, the sinoatrial (SA) node triggers the electrical impulse, causing the upper chambers (atria) to contract. The signal travels through the atrioventricular (AV) node to the atrioventricular bundle, which divides into the Purkinje fibers that carry the signal and cause the lower chambers (ventricles) to contract. The electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) tracing shows this normal electrical activity.

How atrial fibrillation happens

Right and left atria of heart with details showing fibrillation in an atrium, and EKG patterns of fibrillation and normal rhythm.
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slide 2 of 5, How atrial fibrillation happens,

In atrial fibrillation, erratic electrical impulses can cause the upper chambers of the heart (atria) to fibrillate, or quiver, resulting in an irregular and frequently rapid heart rate. The irregular, sawtooth pattern in the electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) tracing shows these erratic impulses.

Catheter is threaded through a vein to the heart

How a catheter is inserted through a vein to the heart
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slide 3 of 5, Catheter is threaded through a vein to the heart,

For this nonsurgical procedure called catheter ablation, thin tubes called catheters are inserted into a vein, typically in the groin or neck, and threaded through the vein into the heart. A small puncture in the tissue that divides the right and left chambers (septum) allows the catheter to pass into the left atrium.

Heart tissue is destroyed

Heart tissue is destroyed (ablation)
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slide 4 of 5, Heart tissue is destroyed,

An electrode at the tip of the catheter sends out radio frequency energy, creating heat that destroys (ablates) the tissue that is causing atrial fibrillation. In this image, the heat is destroying tissue at the base of the pulmonary vein. (The pulmonary veins bring blood back from the lungs to the heart.)

Scar tissue prevents or eliminates impulses

How scar tissue from ablation stops electrical impulses
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slide 5 of 5, Scar tissue prevents or eliminates impulses,

Catheter ablation creates scar tissue that prevents impulses from leaving the pulmonary veins or eliminates the impulses altogether.

AV node ablation

How the heart's electrical system works

The heart and the pathways for electrical impulses, with normal EKG results
slide 1 of 5
    
slide 1 of 5, How the heart's electrical system works,

In a normal heart, electrical impulses pace the rhythm at which the heart contracts and relaxes. The sinoatrial (SA) node triggers the electrical impulse, causing the upper chambers (atria) to contract. The signal travels through the atrioventricular (AV) node to the atrioventricular bundle, which divides into the Purkinje fibers that carry the signal and cause the lower chambers (ventricles) to contract. The electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) shows this normal electrical activity.

How atrial fibrillation happens

Right and left atria of heart with details showing fibrillation in an atrium, and EKG patterns of fibrillation and normal rhythm.
slide 2 of 5
    
slide 2 of 5, How atrial fibrillation happens,

In atrial fibrillation, erratic electrical impulses in the upper chambers of the heart (atria) cause those chambers to fibrillate, or quiver. This results in an irregular and frequently rapid heart rate. The irregular, sawtooth pattern in the electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) shows these erratic impulses.

Catheter is threaded through a vein to the heart

View of catheter from groin to heart, with detail of catheter in the atrium
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slide 3 of 5, Catheter is threaded through a vein to the heart,

For this nonsurgical procedure, catheters are inserted into a vein, typically in the groin or neck, and threaded through the vena cava vein into the right atrium of the heart.

AV node is destroyed

Location of catheter in the heart, with detail of electric current destroying AV node
slide 4 of 5
    
slide 4 of 5, AV node is destroyed,

An electrode at the tip of the catheter sends out radio-frequency energy, creating heat that destroys (ablates) the atrioventricular (AV) node or other heart tissue that is responsible for the erratic impulses.

Pacemaker controls the heart rhythm

Location of pacemaker in chest, with before-and-after EKG results
slide 5 of 5
    
slide 5 of 5, Pacemaker controls the heart rhythm,

When the AV node is ablated, a permanent pacemaker is implanted that paces the ventricle. The pulse generator and battery part of the pacemaker are implanted under the skin of the chest. The electrocardiograms (EKG, ECG) show the heart's electrical activity during atrial fibrillation and when a heart has a pacemaker.

What To Expect

Recovery from catheter ablation is usually quick. You may be hospitalized for 1 to 2 days so that your doctor can monitor your heart.

Many people think that having ablation means they'll be able to stop taking an anticoagulant every day to prevent stroke. But that is only true if your risk of stroke is low. Studies haven't proved that ablation for atrial fibrillation lowers your risk of stroke.footnote 3 So you'll still need to take an anticoagulant if your risk of stroke remains high. Your doctor can tell you about your stroke risk.

After an ablation, you might take an antiarrhythmic medicine for a few months to help keep your heart in a normal rhythm.

Your doctor might ask you to take your pulse at home to see if it's irregular. You might also use an ambulatory EKG monitor (such as a Holter monitor) at home to check your heart rhythm.

You might feel symptoms, such as palpitations, after the ablation procedure. These symptoms might happen while your heart is healing. Sometimes the symptoms may feel different to you after the ablation compared to before the ablation. During your follow-up visits, tell your doctor if you have symptoms. If they don't go away after a few months, you may choose to have a second ablation procedure.

Watch

Why It Is Done

Ablation is done to stop atrial fibrillation from happening and to relieve symptoms.

You and your doctor can check a few things to see if ablation is a good choice for you. These things include:footnote 4, footnote 5

  • What type of atrial fibrillation you have (paroxysmal or persistent).
  • How bad your symptoms are.
  • If you have a problem with the structure of your heart.
  • If you have tried heart rhythm medicines already. Your symptoms may not have gone away or you had side effects that are hard to live with.

The choice to have catheter ablation also depends on what you want.

Catheter ablation does have some serious risks, but they are rare. Many people decide to have ablation because they hope to feel much better afterward. That hope is worth the risks to them. But the risks may not be worth it for people who have few symptoms or for people who are less likely to be helped by ablation.

Learn more

How Well It Works

Catheter ablation can stop atrial fibrillation from happening and can relieve symptoms. Your doctor can help you decide if ablation is a good choice based on your health.

Catheter ablation works better in people who have paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (episodes last 7 days or less) than in people who have persistent atrial fibrillation (episodes last more than 7 days). For both types, episodes may go away on their own or they go away after treatment. Ablation might be less likely to work the longer a person has persistent atrial fibrillation.footnote 6

Things that limit how well catheter ablation works include older age, other heart problems, obesity, and sleep apnea.footnote 6

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation

  • Research shows that ablation stops atrial fibrillation from happening for at least 1 year in about 60 to 90 out of 100 people.footnote 6 That means it does not help in about 10 to 40 out of 100 cases.
  • In a worldwide survey, ablation helped 84 out of every 100 people.footnote 7

Persistent atrial fibrillation

  • Research shows that ablation stops atrial fibrillation for at least 6 to 12 months in about 60 to 80 out of 100 people.footnote 6 That means it doesn't work in about 20 to 40 out of 100 cases.
  • In a worldwide survey, ablation helped about 65 out of every 100 people.footnote 6, footnote 7

Repeated ablation procedures

Atrial fibrillation sometimes returns after an ablation. Research shows that atrial fibrillation may return within 3 months of an ablation in about 50 out of 100 people. footnote 8 This means that atrial fibrillation may not return in about 50 out of 100 people.

If the first procedure doesn't get rid of atrial fibrillation completely, you may choose to have it done a second time. Repeated ablations have a higher chance of success.footnote 8

Risks

Catheter ablation is considered safe. Most people do well afterward.

Your doctor can help you decide whether the possible benefits of ablation outweigh these risks:

Problems during the procedure

If problems happen during the procedure, your doctor is prepared to fix them right away. Serious problems happen in about 6 out of 100 people.footnote 9 These problems include an accidental hole in the heart, the need for emergency surgery, and nerve damage in the chest.

Rare problems include cardiac tamponade and stroke. They happen in about 1 out of 100 people.footnote 9 This means that they do not happen in about 99 out of 100 people. Another serious problem affects the pulmonary vein and happens in about 1 to 6 people out of 100 people. footnote 10 This means that it does not happen in about 94 to 99 people out of 100.

Death from the procedure happens to about 5 out of 1,000 people.footnote 9

Problems after the procedure

Problems after the procedure can be minor (such as mild pain) or serious (such as bleeding). Your doctor will check you closely after the procedure. He or she can fix most of these problems.

The most common problems are related to the catheter that was inserted in a vein.footnote 5 Most of these vein problems aren't serious. They include minor pain, bleeding, and bruising. Vein problems happen in about 1 to 3 people out of 100.footnote 9 This means that they don't happen in 97 to 99 people out of 100.

Serious problems aren't common. These problems include stroke and new heart rhythm problems. Another problem is a life-threatening problem with the esophagus (atrio-esophageal fistula) that happens to about 4 out of 10,000 people.footnote 11

References

Citations

  1. Morady F, Zipes DP (2012). Atrial fibrillation: Clinical features, mechanisms, and management. In RO Bonow et al., eds., Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 825–844. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  2. Chatterjee NA, et al. (2012). Atrioventricular nodal ablation in atrial fibrillation: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology: 5(1): 68–76.
  3. Calkins H, et al. (2017). 2017 HRS/EHRA/ECAS/APHRS/SOLAECE expert consensus statement on catheter and surgical ablation of atrial fibrillation. Heart Rhythm, 14(10): e275–e444. DOI: 10.1016/j.hrthm.2017.05.012. Accessed October 17, 2017.
  4. January CT, et al. (2014). 2014 AHA/ACC/HRS Guideline for the management of patients with atrial fibrillation: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines and the Heart Rhythm Society. Circulation, published online March 28, 2014. DOI: 10.1161/?CIR.0000000000000041. Accessed April 18, 2014.
  5. Calkins H, et al. (2017). 2017 HRS/EHRA/ECAS/APHRS/SOLAECE expert consensus statement on catheter and surgical ablation of atrial fibrillation. Heart Rhythm, 14(10): e275–e444. DOI: 10.1016/j.hrthm.2017.05.012. Accessed October 17, 2017.
  6. Calkins H, et al. (2017). 2017 HRS/EHRA/ECAS/APHRS/SOLAECE expert consensus statement on catheter and surgical ablation of atrial fibrillation. Heart Rhythm, 14(10): e275–e444. DOI: 10.1016/j.hrthm.2017.05.012. Accessed October 17, 2017.
  7. Cappato R, et al. (2010). Updated worldwide survey on the methods, efficacy, and safety of catheter ablation for human atrial fibrillation. Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, 3(1): 32–38.
  8. Calkins H, et al. (2009). Treatment of atrial fibrillation with antiarrhythmic drugs or radiofrequency ablation: Two systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses. Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology , 2(4): 349–361. DOI: 10.1161/CIRCEP.108.824789. Accessed October 17, 2017.
  9. Deshmukh A, et al. (2013). In-hospital complications associated with catheter ablation of atrial fibrillation in the United States between 2000 and 2010. Circulation, 128(19): 2104–2112. DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.003862. Accessed October 17, 2017.
  10. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2009). Comparative Effectiveness of Radiofrequency Catheter Ablation for Atrial Fibrillation (AHRQ Publication No. 09-EDC015-EF). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Also available online: http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/ehc/products/51/114/2009_0623RadiofrequencyFinal.pdf.
  11. Cappato R, et al. (2010). Updated worldwide survey on the methods, efficacy, and safety of catheter ablation for human atrial fibrillation. Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, 3(1): 32–38.

Credits

Current as of: December 2, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
John M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology