At least 2.2 million people in the US could be suffering from atrial fibrillation, it is estimated. And the number of patients is forecast to soar.
It is a condition in which part of the heart does not beat the way it should. Instead of beating in a regular, normal pattern, part of the heart beats irregularly and too fast.
The two small upper chambers of the heart, the atria, quiver instead of beating effectively. Although atrial fibrillation is not in itself considered life-threatening, people with it are at an increased risk for blood clots and stroke.
While some experience no symptoms and most others seem to suffer little more than weakness or shortness of breath, atrial fibrillation is now recognized as a major source of strokes and a precursor to potentially fatal deterioration of the heart.
And the best hope for a cure is catheter-based ablation, despite some skeptical voices, commentators say.
The procedure involves burning, freezing, or otherwise neutralizing the portions of the heart muscle where abnormal electrical pulses set off the irregular heartbeats. The technique aims to restore the ability of the two atria, situated at the top of the heart, to effectively gather blood and prime the ventricles, the hearts main pumps.
The original form of atrial ablation, using surgical tools, is still employed, but almost always restricted to cases where the chest is already being cut open for heart valve replacement or other surgery.
But most atrial ablations are now minimally invasive procedures using tiny devices mounted at the end of long, flexible plastic catheters that are threaded into the heart through veins.
Full-scale clinical trials have not yet demonstrated the long-term benefits from the catheter-based treatment. But, based on promising results from less rigorous studies, major medical societies have endorsed it.
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