Cardiologists say Vice President Dick Cheney's episode of irregular heart rhythm will not likely affect his immediate health — but the condition could point to a worsening of his continuing heart problems.
Cheney's doctor detected his irregular heartbeat, technically known as atrial fibrillation, Monday morning when the vice president visited because of concerns over a lingering cough, believed to be from a cold.
The diagnosis was enough to send Cheney to George Washington University Hospital for a treatment called cardioversion, which is designed to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. The procedure, which took place Monday afternoon and requires briefly placing the patient under general anesthetic, "went smoothly and without complication," according to a statement issued by Cheney's office.
"The Vice President has returned home and will resume his normal schedule tomorrow at the White House," Monday's statement reads.
Doctors agree that the irregular heartbeat poses little additional threat to Cheney's health.
"Atrial fibrillation, by itself, is not a very serious heart rhythm problem," says Dr. Doug Zipes, director emeritus of the cardiology division of the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Additionally, the cardioversion procedure did not likely put him in further danger.
"It's a very, very low risk procedure," says Dr. Kim Eagle, clinical director of the University of Michigan's cardiovascular center. "Almost always, we are able to effectively restore a patient's heart rhythm to a normal heart rhythm."
Still, cardiologists say the finding is not good news for Cheney.
"It is something that, if he was my patient, I would wish he didn't have," Zipes says. "Individuals with his heart disease history with atrial fibrillation do not do as well with their condition than those without atrial fibrillation."
Indeed, the irregular rhythm represents the latest link in a chain of heart problems for the vice president, a progression that began in 1978 with his first heart attack, which occurred when Cheney was 37.
Since then, the 66-year-old Cheney has weathered three more heart attacks — one in 1984, one in 1988, and one in 2000. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1988, sustained two angioplasties on the blocked artery responsible for his fourth heart attack, and had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, installed in 2001, to regulate his heartbeat.
Some worry that this history could mean the vice president's heart troubles are getting worse.
"Development of atrial fibrillation is generally a negative event," says Dr. Sanjeev Saksena, director of the Cardiovascular Institute and arrhythmia service for Atlantic Health, adding that the condition has negative implications for the ventricles — the two lower chambers of the heart.
"It would imply that his ventrical function deteriorated, and the [atrial fibrillation] could further worsen it and cause more limitations in his exercise capacities and ability to function, and can, in turn, provoke further worsening of heart function," Saksena says.
Despite these concerns, the cardioversion Cheney underwent likely improved his condition — at least for the time being. Initial success rates for the procedure are high, with 75 percent to 93 percent of patients experiencing a normal heart rhythm afterward.