New Procedure Calms Erratic Heartbeat

ByABC News via via logo

Feb. 21, 2006— -- Allan Pencher has been an active person all his life. He runs, swims, and plays with his grandchildren. Three years ago, all that suddenly changed when his heart started jumping around inside his chest. Pencher, 55, was diagnosed with intermittent atrial fibrillation. It comes and goes several times a day.

"It feels like a pounding, and it feels uncomfortable. It feels like my heart is actually stuttering," Pencher said. "I feel like my heart's going 200 miles an hour sometimes. It's just a struggle to try to make it through the day."

An atrial fibrillation starts in the veins that feed into the left upper chamber in the heart -- the left atrium. Abnormal electrical signals from these veins spread throughout the upper chambers causing an irregular heartbeat that leads to troublesome symptoms. ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson also suffers from the condition that he says affects him several times a week.

"Palpitations, or lightheadedness, or shortness of breath or reduced ability to exercise are patient's biggest complaints," said Dr. Jeremy Ruskin of the Massachusetts General Hospital.

For some, medications control the problem, but for others, a relatively new procedure called ablation allows doctors to literally get to the heart of the matter and destroy the enemy.

Pencher underwent the procedure at Massachusetts General in Boston, where doctors used technology that displayed a real-time scan of his heart as they worked.

After snaking a catheter from Pencher's leg into his heart, doctors pushed it right though the heart wall to the area where the problem started, the vein opening into the left atrium.

"So we have a long needle, and we use this needle to puncture the septum," said Dr. Vivek Reddy.

Using radio frequency energy, Reddy then created a ring of destruction -- one little spot at a time -- around these vein openings to prevent the abnormal impulses from getting into the heart. Three hours into the procedure, Reddy displayed the enhanced scan of Pencher's heart on the computer screen.

"Here we're looking at the heart from inside, so we're going to move this ablation catheter and move it all the way around here to electrically isolate on this side," he said.

The end result is an electrical barrier created by the procedure.

"Therefore, the ability of the veins to trigger AF [atrial fibrillation] is eliminated by this barrier," Ruskin said.

Johnson said he also planned to get the procedure done in the near future.

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