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What is Cardiac Ablation? - Definition, Procedure & Risks

Instructor: Virginia Rawls

Virginia has a master' degree in Education and a bachelors in Sports Medicine/athletic Training

Cardiac ablation is a procedure that can help people who have abnormal rhythms in their heart. Continue reading to find out what cardiac ablation is, how the procedure is done, and the risks involved.

Anatomy Review

Have you ever laid your head on someone's chest and heard their heart? It's a comforting sound isn't it? But some heartbeats don't beat quite right, which sometimes doesn't do any harm, but in other situations can cause real problems. In those cases there is a surgery that can fix it. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's do a quick anatomy review of the heart.

The heart is a major organ that is responsible for pumping blood through the body. The heart is made up of 4 chambers (2 atria at the top of the heart, and 2 ventricles at the bottom). Veins carry blood without oxygen back to the heart and lungs from the body. Arteries carry oxygen rich blood from the heart and lungs back to the rest of the body.

heart diagram

But how can the heart do all of this? Well, electrical impulses are what tells the atria and ventricles to beat in sync with each other so that blood moves the correct way and with the correct amount of force. If these impulses are blocked or are signaling incorrectly it can lead to the heart having an abnormal beat, or arrhythmia.

What is Cardiac Ablation?

A cardiac ablation is a procedure where a surgeon uses electrodes to destroy/ablate tissues that are causing heart arrhythmia. The tricky part is getting the electrodes into the heart. To do this, doctors use catheters. Catheters are a thin, flexible, plastic used for several medical procedures to help deliver medication, remove fluid and help diagnose conditions. Catheters used for cardiac ablation are very long and contain an electrode on the tip.

The electrode can destroy tissues with either extreme heat, extreme cold, or a specialized laser.

Working with the cardiovascular system, the catheter is inserted into a vein and threaded up into the heart. The catheter is usually inserted into a vein in the groin, but can also be inserted into the forearm or neck.

The act of moving the catheter through a vein and into the heart can be a very slow process. It has to be done without puncturing through the vein or the heart. To make sure nothing is damaged the whole procedure is done under constant x-ray so that the surgeon can see every movement of the catheter and when it enters the heart.

Once the catheter is in place and the surgeon can see the tissues causing the arrhythmia, he/she will deliver small waves of the heat, cold, or laser. This will destroy the tissues and help cure the problem.

The Procedure

Before a patient is scheduled to have a cardiac ablation, their doctor will try to control the problem with medications. If those medications do not work, or the arrhythmia is causing serious heart problems, they will be scheduled for the cardiac ablation. Many instances the patient will be able to go home the day of the procedure, but some do need to stay overnight for observation.

Once the patient checks in to the hospital they will be given an IV and a sedative. This sedative will help to calm any nerves and help them keep still during the procedure.

The patient will be taken to the cardiac lab. An X-ray machine shaped a bit like a 'C' is designed to fit over the patient and the bed at the same time. The pictures it takes appear on screens above the head.

The area of the body where the catheter will be inserted (groin, forearm, or neck) is cleaned and draped. The cardiologist will make a small incision and find the vein. Under constant x-ray, the catheter is slowly moved into the vein and up to the heart where the electrode will make direct contact with the tissues causing the problem.

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