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Fall 2004

Radiofrequency Used to Treat Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Cardiac arrhythmias—abnormal heart rhythms—affect several million Americans. The problems with the heart muscle’s electrical functioning tend to produce symptoms of palpitations and sensations in which the heart feels as if it’s beating too rapidly or too slowly, causing individuals to feel tired or short of breath. In most cases, arrhythmias are benign. But for some people, they can have serious consequences. When left untreated, atrial fibrillation—the most common arrhythmia for which medical care is sought—increases the risk of stroke.

Medications are typically used to treat arrhythmias, but the drugs are not always successful in treating the rhythm disorders, or can have significant side effects. In such cases, doctors use a newer treatment, radiofrequency catheter ablation.

 “After one or more thin tubes (catheters) are inserted, under X-ray guidance, into the blood vessels and directed toward the heart muscle, we aim radiofrequency currents through the catheters to alter the structure of the heart’s atrium, destroying the heart muscle cells that cause the arrhythmia,” explains Kalyanam Shivkumar, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center. The non-surgical, outpatient treatment has a low risk of complications, and most patients can resume normal activities within a few days.

 “We have come a long way with non-pharmacologic therapy,” Dr. Shivkumar says. “Our ability to use radiofrequency cardiac ablation to treat patients in a way that cures their symptoms and, in many cases, enables them to stop the anti-arrhythmic drugs has been a major step forward.”

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