Freezing irregular heartbeats

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
February 4, 2008 9:00:00 PM PST
More than two million people live with an irregular heart beat. Now, a new procedure is using extreme cold to freeze hearts back into rhythm.Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

We all know the sound of a healthy heart. But what about when it skips or beats really fast and irregular?

It's what Peter Nyquist felt inside his chest for the past decade.

"Instead of feeling a constant boom, boom, boom in your chest, it would be boom...boom, boom, ba, ba, ba," he said. "Everything was out of beat."

Even with a lot of coffee, his cardiac arrhythmia left him extremely tired.

"Walking up a flight of stairs, you'd really be huffing and puffing," he said "It was just a really uncomfortable feeling in the chest."

Arrhythmias can cause stroke or heart attacks. But before something serious happened to Peter, his heart was frozen back into rhythm by a process called cryoablation.

"It's a little bit more accurate and it destroys tissue in a different fashion, which we think is probably safer," cardiologist Dr. Walter Kerwin said.

A long, thin tube is inserted through a leg vein and threaded to the heart. Catheter cryoablation uses intense cold, -90 degrees Celsius, to destroy the heart tissue that is causing the irregular rhythm.

"Our goal is to identify where the origin of the abnormal rhythm is coming from and to specifically target that focus for destruction," Dr. Kerwin said.

Before cryoablation, radiofrequency ablation heated up the tissue. It was faster, but freezing arrhythmias gives the doctor more control and there is less pain after surgery.

"My life, our lives have completely changed from it," Nyquist said.

Patients can be released the same day as the cryoablation. Arrhythmias are commonly treated first with medications such as digoxin and beta-blockers. Cryoablation would come into play when medications fail to control the condition.

Click here for more information from the FDA.