• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

New technique to treat atrial fibrillation

August 24, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
About 2.5 million Americans live with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat condition that can raise the risk of stroke. Medications help, but often stop working after a while. Doctors now have a new technique to help get heartbeats back on track.

Michael Young has lived with atrial fibrillation since the 1990s. The racing, irregular heartbeat would come and go.

"Sometimes, it was when I was exercising. Sometimes it's late at night," said Young.

It would leave him dizzy and short of breath, but that wasn't what bothered him most.

"For me, the worst thing has been this kind of psychological thing," said Young.

The fact that atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke kept Young up at night. Mayo Clinic Doctor Doug Packer says medications can help, but they often stop working or have side effects. Patients need more options.

"If a patient's heart is beating rapidly and irregularly, it is incredibly obnoxious. It is, in fact, a real hit, as it were, on their quality of life," said Packer, a cardiac electrophysiologist.

He's now using a new technique to fix the problem. First, a catheter is threaded up to veins in the heart and a balloon is inflated. That balloon is cooled rapidly, which creates a freezing zone around the opening of the vein.

"If we can block off the electrical conduction from inside the vein to the rest of the heart, we can be successful in eliminating atrial fibrillation," said Packer.

Study results show a 70-percent success rate.

"It's the first time that this kind of an approach has been used to eliminate atrial fibrillation. If they are in the 70 percent where it works, the results are dramatic," said Packer.

Young was in that 70 percent.

"A month now after the procedure, things are pretty quiet down there," said Young.

The best candidates for this treatment, which is a form of ablation, are people who have atrial fibrillation that comes and goes with little underlying heart disease.

Often this new catheter procedure can fix the problem with just a single treatment, but Dr. Packer says sometimes a second treatment needs to be done.

Load Comments