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Catheter Ablation Effective in Treating Atrial Fibrillation

Burning faulty tissue better than meds for irregular heartbeat, study suggests

THURSDAY, May 14 (HealthDay News) -- Treating an irregular heartbeat by searing faulty heart tissue may be more effective than treating with medication, a new study shows.

Nearly two-thirds of study participants with atrial fibrillation experienced no such condition-related symptoms one year after having a catheter ablation, a procedure in which heart tissue responsible for the erratic electrical signals throwing off the organ's pumping rhythm is burned and destroyed. Only 17 percent of those in the study treated for the condition with medications reported being arrhythmia-free in the same period.

Those who had the surgical procedure also said they experienced a great improvement in their quality of life.

The international study's 167 participants, all of whom had previously been unable to control the condition with medication alone, had been randomly assigned to either have the heart procedure or be treated for it with medications, according to the research, lead by Dr. David Wilber, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, in Maywood, Ill.

Wilber was scheduled to present his team's findings Thursday at the Heart Rhythm Society's annual meeting in Boston. The study was funded by Biosense Webster, maker of the ThermoCool catheter used in the trial, and Wilber is a consultant to the company.

More than 2 million Americans have atrial fibrillation, making it the most common of heart rhythm disorders. The electrical signals to the heart become irregular, causing the organ's upper chambers to pump out of rhythm. The condition can cause heart palpitations, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath and fainting that lead to a person having a lack of energy, feeling of weakness and a poor quality of life. It can also lead to stroke and heart failure.

Doctors often first prescribe beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, flecainide or propafenone to try to improve the condition before resorting to surgical options such as installing a pacemaker or catheter ablation.

In catheter ablation, doctors guide a thin flexible tube through blood vessels to the heart. Radiofrequency energy directed from the tube's tip heats and destroys the tissue causing the bad electrical signals. The procedure's risks include creating fluid in the lungs or around the heart, bleeding, clots and stroke.

Another study, involving about 3,000 atrial fibrillation patients who will be followed for three years, will try to determine whether those who have catheter ablation live longer those using medication for the condition, according to background information in a Loyola University news release on the study.

More information

The American Heart Association has more about atrial fibrillation.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Loyola University Health System, news release, May 14, 2009

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