Fixing an irregular heart rhythm

February 16, 2010 9:42:44 AM PST
Atrial Fibrillation, or A-Fib, is a common heart rhythm problem associated with an increased long-term risk of stroke, heart failure and even death. A new study shows how using a heated catheter may be more effective than drug therapy in treating an intermittent form of this condition. "My heart would just start racing and I would kinda lose my breath," catheter ablation patient Robin Drabant said. "Usually it only lasted for a couple of seconds, but as I got older they got progressively worse and more frequent."

Almost two years ago, Robin had a catheter ablation. Dr. David Wilber, from Loyola University Medical Center, performs them regularly. Spikes of electrical impulses show Dr. Wilber the rapid beating in the muscle sleeves around the pulmonary veins.

"The goal is to destroy the muscle around the pulmonary veins in order to prevent those transmissions of electrical impulses to the rest of the heart," Dr. Wilber said.

Dr. Wilber and co-authors conducted a randomized trial with 167 patients in 19 hospitals between October 2004 and 2007. All had a form of A-Fib that stops and starts on its own. They say 106 had catheter ablation and 61 were treated with antiarrhythmic drugs.

"Sixty and 70 percent of patients treated with catheter ablation never had another episode after the treatment, but about 30 percent did," Dr. Wilber said. "In contrast, patients treated with drug therapy had somewhere between a 80 and 90 percent recurrence of arrhythmias over that time frame."

"I can just say from my experience it was the best decision I've ever made," Drabant said. "I wish I'd made it years before, because my quality of life is just so much more improved."

"Drugs have been the mainstay for a long time," Dr. Wilber said. "They've not been effective. We now have something that's very clearly and very objectively demonstrated to be far more effective not only in controlling Atrial Fibrillation and the symptoms, but improving quality of life."

"I'm a normal 36-year-old and very glad I did it," Drabant said.

Researchers say the study was halted early because of the positive results of the catheter ablation.