Cold Hearted: Freezing Atrial Fibrillation

FRESNO, Calif.

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 told Ivanhoe.

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 told Ivanhoe.

"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., told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Packer says 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," Dr. Packer said.

Young was in that 70 percent.

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

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 Dr. Packer says sometimes a second treatment needs to be done.

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marsha Hitchcock at mhitchcock@

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