Cold Hearted: Freezing Atrial Fibrillation

New Catheter Procedure Can Fix Problem With Single Treatment

About 2.5 million Americans live with atrial fibrillation. It’s a disorder where the heart beats abnormally, raising the risk of stroke among those who have it. Medications can help but often stop working after a while. Doctors now have a new tool to help get these hearts back on track.

Michael Young has lived with atrial fibrillation since the 90's. His racing, irregularly-beating heart would come and go.

“Sometimes, it was when I was exercising. Sometimes, it’s late at night,” Young said.

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,” Young said.

“If a patient’s heart is beating rapidly and irregularly, it is incredibly obnoxious. It is, in fact, a real hit on their quality of life,” Douglas Packer, M.D., a cardiac electrophysiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said.

Packer said medications can help, but they often stop working or have side effects. He’s now using a new technique to fix the problem.

First, a catheter is threaded up to veins in 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,” Dr. Packer said.

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,” Packer said.

Young was in that 70 percent.

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

Now, he can focus on his work and stop worrying about his heart.

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 Packer said sometimes a second treatment needs to be done.

BACKGROUND: Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that usually causes poor blood flow to the body. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers, the atria, beat chaotically and irregularly out of coordination with the two lower chambers, the ventricles, of the heart. Symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness. Episodes of atrial fibrillation can come and go, or a patient may have chronic atrial fibrillation. Although atrial fibrillation itself usually isn't life-threatening, it is a serious medical condition that sometimes requires emergency treatment. (SOURCE:

TREATMENTS: Treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on how often the person has symptoms, how severe they are, and whether they already have heart disease. General treatment options include medicines, medical procedures, and lifestyle changes. One goal of treating AF is preventing blood clots from forming, which will lower the risk of stroke. Another goal is controlling how many times a minute the ventricles contract; this is called rate control. It’s important because it allows the ventricles enough time to completely fill with blood. Also, another goal is restoring a normal heart rhythm, which is called rhythm control. Rhythm control allows the atria and ventricles to work together to efficiently pump blood to the body. (SOURCE:

NEW TREATMENT: A new, minimally invasive procedure for patients living with atrial fibrillation has been approved by the FDA. During this procedure called cryoablation, doctors insert a balloon catheter into a blood vessel in the upper leg and snake it through the circulatory system until it reaches the heart. Once in place, the cryoballoon is inflated and extremely cold energy flows through the catheter, freezing the heart tissue that is causing the irregular heartbeat. This new freezing system is a more straightforward way to treat atrial fibrillation. By using the freezing ablation on very specific areas, doctors can get the blood to flow and stop the electrical signals that cause the arrhythmia. (SOURCE: MORE


    Dana Wirth Sparks Mayo Clinic Department of Public Affairs Rochester, MN
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