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Fall 2005

Heart Arrhythmias Respond to Ablation

Several million Americans have cardiac arrhythmias— conditions in which alterations in the heart muscle’s electrical function produces palpitations or abnormal rhythms that lead individuals to feel chronically tired or short of breath.

Although many arrhythmias are benign, some, such as ventricular arrhythmia, can be life-threatening. Atrial fibrillation, one of the most common heart problems, increases the risk of stroke when left untreated.

Medications traditionally used to treat rhythm disorders are not always effective and can have significant side effects. “Many people don’t realize that other good options exist for treating arrhythmias,” says Kalyanam Shivkumar, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center.

Radiofrequency catheter ablation has emerged as one such treatment. Under X-ray guidance, one or more catheters are inserted into the blood vessels and directed toward the heart muscle; then, radiofrequency currents are applied through the catheters to electrically alter the structure of the heart’s atrium, destroying the heartmuscle cells that cause the arrhythmia. This treatment is done on an outpatient basis and has a low risk of complications, with most patients resuming normal activities within a few days.

“We use another ablation technique—cryoablation— when treating cardiac tissue adjacent to an important nerve or structure,” says Dr. Shivkumar. Cryoablation—in which carefully selected areas of the heart are frozen using a coolant that flows through the catheter—has been particularly beneficial for pediatric patients. In addition to cryoablation, cardiologists can now map the outside of the heart and perform epicardial ablations, threading wires to cure arrhythmias on the heart’s outer surface.

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