OHSU

Radiofrequency Ablation

If you have been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia – a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat – your doctor may recommend a procedure called catheter ablation to improve your condition.

Facts about radiofrequency ablation

Also known as a cardiac ablation or radiofrequency ablation, this procedure guides a tube into your heart to destroy small areas of heart tissue that may be causing your abnormal heartbeat.

Not everyone with a heart arrhythmia needs a catheter ablation. It’s usually recommended for people with arrhythmias that can’t be controlled by medication or with certain types of arrhythmia and for people at risk for ventricular fibrillation, a severe kind of arrhythmia.

The procedure

Catheter ablation can take anywhere from three to six hours. Before the procedure begins, the medical staff will give you intravenous medications to help you relax; some people even fall asleep. After the medication has taken effect, your doctor will numb an area on your arm, neck, or groin and make a small hole in your skin. Then, the doctor will guide a thin guide wire and a small catheter to your heart through blood vessels. A special dye is used to help your doctor place the catheter in the right spot.

After the catheter has been placed correctly, electrodes at the end of the catheter are used to stimulate your heart and locate the problem areas that are causing the abnormal heartbeat. Then, the doctor will use mild radiofrequency energy to destroy or “ablate” the problem area. This area is usually quite small, about one-fifth of an inch. Once the tissue is destroyed, the abnormal electrical signals that created the arrhythmia can no longer be sent.

Most people do not feel pain during the procedure. You may sense mild discomfort in your chest. After the ablation is over, your doctor will remove the guide wire and catheter from your chest. 

After the procedure

After the catheter ablation, you will probably need to lie still for one to six hours to lessen the risk of bleeding. Medical staff may apply pressure to the site where the catheter was inserted.  Special machines will be used to monitor your heart as you recover. Some people can go home on the same day as the ablation, but others will stay in the hospital for one or more nights.

Managing after a radiofrequency ablation

Recovery from catheter ablation is usually fairly easy. In the days following the procedure, you may experience mild symptoms such as an achy chest and discomfort or bruising in the area where the catheter was inserted. You might also notice skipped heartbeats or irregular heart rhythms. Most people can return to their normal activities within a few days.

Contact your doctor immediately if you have unusual pain or swelling, excessive bleeding, or consistent irregularities in your heartbeat.

Catheter ablation has a success rate of more than 90 percent, but some people may need to have the procedure again or other treatments for heart arrhythmias. Your doctor may want you to remain on medications to help control your heartbeat. 

After your catheter ablation, be sure to follow all instructions from your doctor, especially regarding follow-up visits, medication schedules, and safe levels of physical activity.