Cardiac Ablation: Recovery & Therapy

Instructor: Meghan Greenwood

Meghan has taught undergraduate and graduate level science courses and has a PhD in Immunology.

A patient with an irregular heartbeat can sometimes be treated with a cardiac ablation. Learn about this procedure and the recovery time necessary after the therapy.

What Is Cardiac Ablation?

The heart is responsible for pumping blood into all areas of the body. In a healthy person, the heart beats at regular frequencies. However, if the heart starts to beat irregularly, it is called arrhythmia.

Think of arrhythmia as a popular song playing on a record player that starts to skip. The musical pattern is disrupted, breaking up the song into disjointed beats. In order to fix the skipping, you often have to adjust the record player's needle. Now imagine that the needle is deep inside the record player - in a place where you can't see it or reach it easily with your hand. How would you adjust a needle that is out of your visible range? Would you open up the entire player, running the risk of damaging or even breaking the device? Or, would you use a tool to reach inside the player, correcting the needle from a small distance?

In the case of arrhythmia, this is what surgeons do: they use a tool to reach inside the heart to correct the irregularity. This is a procedure known as cardiac ablation.

An example of a regular and an arrhythmic heartbeat

Cardiac Ablation Procedure

A cardiac ablation is performed by inserting a thin tube or catheter into a vein near the surface of the patient's body. The catheter is fed through the vein until it reaches the heart.

Depending on a patient's medical history, general anesthesia or procedural sedation plus a local anesthetic at the catheter insertion point may be used. Once the catheter is in place, electrodes are placed into the catheter and inserted into the heart. Pulses of electricity are sent to the heart muscle. These pulses deliver energy that essentially destroys cells within the heart. Overall, destruction of the cells leads to elimination of the heart tissue that is responsible for the abnormal heartbeat.

Although a catheter is the typical way to treat an arrhythmia, open-heart surgery can be performed if needed - essentially opening up the entire record player, which significantly increases recovery time.

The image depicts a peripheral vein catheter that is threaded to the heart


After the 3-6-hour procedure, the patient is moved to a recovery room where nurses monitor the patient's heartbeat for at least another 4-6 hours. The patient is told to lie flat and still for the entirety of the recovery period. Pressure is also applied to the catheter insertion point, to keep bleeding to a minimum. If need be, a patient may stay in the hospital overnight.

Once the recovery is complete, the arrhythmia should be gone. If irregular heartbeat persists, repeat procedures or a pacemaker may need to be implemented.

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