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St. Mary Physicians Offer Advanced Treatment for Irregular Heartbeats Caused by Atrial Fibrillation

LANGHORNE, Pa., March 5, 2008 – Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia), affecting more than two million Americans. Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) reduce the overall efficiency of the heart and may put people at greater risk for heart failure or stroke.

St. Mary is one of the first hospitals in the region to offer radiofrequency ablation as a treatment for atrial fibrillation.

"Our knowledge of the treatment of atrial fibrillation continues to grow," says Dr. Scott W. Burke, Medical Director of interventional electrophysiology at St. Mary and founder of St. Mary’s program. "We have had excellent success in performing these complex ablations to treat this common condition. Catheter ablation of atrial fibrillation is a major step forward in the management this condition and offers patients improved control of their symptoms while potentially reducing their long term risk of complications of the arrhythmia.”

In this minimally invasive advanced procedure done in the state-of-the-art electrophysiology labs at St. Mary, an interventional electrophysiologist guides a slender and flexible catheter into the heart. The catheter is positioned by the electrophysiologist using advanced computers and equipment. Information about the heart’s rhythm is gathered and fed into computers, some of which create detailed electrical “maps” of the heart. This can allow these highly skilled physicians to pinpoint the abnormal tissue causing the heart rhythm problem. The electrophysiologist then precisely positions an ablation catheter that will use radiofrequency energy to eliminate the abnormal area of tissue and restore the heart's normal rhythm.

The heart functions as a muscular pump providing blood supply to the entire body. This muscular pump is driven by electrical heart beats, which the heart itself creates. When this electrical system breaks down, cardiac arrhythmias occur. An electrophysiology (EP) study analyzes the electrical system of the heart by recording electrical activity from within the heart chambers.

In atrial fibrillation, there is chaotic electrical short circuiting throughout the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria), and until recently it has been difficult to even imagine how an ablation procedure might help to cure this type of arrhythmia. It is an extremely complex procedure to map the electrical system in the atria and identify the problem pathways. The experience and knowledge of the electrophysiology team are responsible for the high success rate of this procedure performed at St. Mary.

Dr. Bradford C. Sodowick, Medical Director of electrophysiology for St. Mary Medical Center, is confident that the proven track record and experience at St. Mary are a real benefit to patients. “Our team of experienced physicians is prepared to treat the most complex cases. We have the knowledge to perform very advanced procedures with state-of-the-art technology that helps make it all possible and offer our patients comprehensive cardiac care that contributes significantly to a patient’s overall quality of life, in their own community,” he says.

In some cases atrial fibrillation is treated using open-heart or minimally invasive heart surgery, particularly when other procedures such as heart valve replacement are being performed simultaneously. With the comprehensive approach and experience offered by the heart specialists at St. Mary, patients can be assured that they are getting the highest quality of treatment for even the most complex cases.

An improvement in quality of life can be one of the most noticeable benefits of restoring normal heart rhythm. Although atrial fibrillation is not generally life-threatening, its symptoms (sudden heart pounding, dizziness, chest discomfort, palpitations felt in the chest, throat, or neck) can change the way a patient functions in his or her day-to-day life. These symptoms may limit physical activity because of fatigue or fear of damage to the heart or the potential for a stroke or heart attack.

Patients with atrial fibrillation often experience rapid heartbeat and can feel frightened or physically weakened by the onset of their symptoms. In many cases, medication can be used to treat atrial fibrillation; however, medication is not always effective in correcting the condition and can cause undesirable side effects. Also, many younger patients oppose being on medications for the rest of their lives. For patients considered good candidates for this procedure, radiofrequency ablation can be an effective alternative. The procedure has few side effects, is relatively low risk and most patients leave the hospital within one to two days.

St. Mary Medical Center is committed to providing excellent cardiovascular services and is known for bringing advanced care to the region. St. Mary performed Buck County’s first-open heart surgery and continues to perform the most open-heart surgeries in the county – nearly 400 annually. In addition, St. Mary expanded its specialized cardiac care in February 2006 with the addition of a Cardiovascular Care Unit (CVCU) and two new updated electrophysiology labs. The electrophysiology labs at St. Mary were among the first in the area to offer experienced intervention for irregular heartbeats. The EP labs celebrate their 10th anniversary this year, and St. Mary physicians currently perform more than 2000 procedures annually, including lifesaving ICD and pacemaker implants.

Learn more about atrial fibrillation and radiofrequency ablation