What Happens During Catheter Ablation for AFib?

What Is Catheter Ablation?

Catheter ablation is a nonsurgical way to treat atrial fibrillation (AFib), a type of irregular heartbeat. It destroys the tissue that may be causing the heartbeat to get off course. This creates scar tissue inside your heart’s chambers. This scar tissue is a good thing. It will help your heartbeat stay in rhythm.

Your doctor will not have to cut into your chest cavity to do this procedure. The catheter is a long, flexible tube that is inserted into a blood vessel and guided into your heart.

How Should I Prepare for My Catheter Ablation?

Before your procedure, you doctor may ask you to undergo some tests. They will tell your doctor more about your heart and overall health. They may include:

The day before your ablation, you should not eat or drink anything after midnight. Food or drinks in your stomach may cause you to react badly to your anesthesia during the procedure. For example, you might vomit, and it could get in your lungs.

What to Expect: Catheter Ablation Step-by-Step

A nurse will weigh you, give you a physical exam, take your medical history, ask you about all the medications you take, and test your blood for levels of blood thinner drugs.

Your anesthesiologist will also examine you, ask you about your medical history, and talk to you about your anesthesia for the ablation. You will be given anesthesia to put you to sleep during the ablation. It is not a painful procedure.

You will lie on a surgical table for your ablation. A nurse will attach electrocardiogram (EKG) electrodes on patches onto your back and chest. Wires attached to the electrodes will send signals to computers to guide your doctor during your ablation.

If your skin has hair, a small area may be shaved where the catheter, a type of tube, goes in. It will usually go in through a blood vessel in your groin at the top of your legs, or sometimes in your neck.

Once your surgeon puts the catheter into your blood vessel, he will guide it into the inside of your heart. He will use ultrasound to see where it's going.

Your doctor will use the end of the catheter to zap the spots in your heart that cause trouble. Afterward, the electrical current in the heart should be fixed and blood should flow normally.

Surgeons can use these to create the scar tissue:

  • Radiofrequency waves
  • Microwaves
  • Lasers
  • Cryothermy (this freezes tissue)

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What Happens After Catheter Ablation?

You may have to stay in the hospital overnight after your ablation so your doctor and nurses can keep an eye on you while you recover. You may need to rest in bed about 6 to 8 hours after your ablation. Some people leave the hospital the same day. Most people leave the hospital the next morning.

Your doctor will talk with you about the procedure and how well it may treat your AFib.

For a few days after your ablation, you may feel sore or tired, or some discomfort in your chest. You may need to nap more than usual for a few days as you recover.

It can take several weeks for the work done during your procedure to turn into scar tissue. So you may not have a normal heartbeat until the scar tissue forms. Your AFib may seem the same or worse until then. You may need to take blood thinners for 3 months after your ablation. You may get antacids or anti-inflammatory drugs, too. Sometimes the procedure may need to be repeated in order for it to be successful. Your doctor will check your heart rhythm in the days and weeks after your procedure to see if that’s something you’ll need.

Tips for Recovery

Don’t lift, push, or pull any objects heavier than 10 pounds for about a week after your ablation. That means not doing things like mowing the lawn. Avoid intense exercise for about 3 weeks after your procedure, too.

Make sure your surgical wounds stay clean and dry until they heal. You can take a shower, but for the first 5 days don’t use very hot water or soak in the bath. Just gently pat dry near your wound. And don’t use lotions or creams there.

If you notice any signs of infection of your wound sites, such as a fever, redness, heat, or swelling, call your doctor.

What Are the Risks?

Your doctor should explain your risks to you. Sometimes people have bleeding, an infection, or pain where your doctor put in the catheter. More serious and less likely risks include blood clots and unintended damage to tissues in your body, including accidentally puncturing your heart.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Suzanne R. Steinbaum, MD on July 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:
 

Cleveland Clinic: “Pulmonary Vein Ablation Procedure,” “After Catheter Ablation.”

Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School: “Patient Guide to Catheter Ablation for Atrial Fibrillation.”

American Heart Association: “Non-surgical Procedures for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF).”

Hospital for Special Surgery: “Anesthesiology: Frequently Asked Questions.”

Heart Rhythm Society: “Types of Ablations.”

NIH: “What Is Catheter Ablation?”

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