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What Are the Risks of Ablation?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Risks of ablation, usually called catheter ablation, include bleeding, infection, and some discomfort. Serious risks, which occur rarely, are defined as blood clots that could cause a stroke or heart attack, and heart punctures. In some cases, the heart’s electrical system might become damaged during the procedure, which might create the need for a pacemaker. Kidney damage from dye used in ablation, and damage to blood vessels, also might occur.

Ablation risks increase in elderly patients over the age of 65. Patients with certain kidney disorders or diabetes also face greater risks of ablation. Doctors commonly weigh the risks of ablation against the benefits of treating irregular heart rhythms, called arrhythmia.

Patients with heart rate abnormalities might undergo catheter ablation to disrupt electrical signals in the section of the heart causing the problem. A thin needle covered by a sheath is inserted into a vein, usually in the groin, thigh, neck, or arm. Tiny electrodes at the end of the device connect to a machine capable of sending electrical energy to the heart. The electrical impulses might be produced by extreme cold, radio waves, or laser beams.

A dye helps the doctor guide the catheter to the exact area of the heart causing arrhythmia. Energy from the electrodes creates a scar on the area, which kills tissue to stop abnormal heart rhythm. The procedure commonly takes between three and six hours. Afterward, the patient must remain flat for a few hours in a recovery room where blood pressure and heart rate are monitored. The patient may go home the same day or remain in the hospital for one or more days after ablation.

Normal heart rhythms radiate from the top to bottom of the organ with each beat. These electrical impulses usually automatically control contractions and blood flow. When this electrical system misfires, arrhythmia occurs. Some types of irregular heart rhythm might be controlled with medication in lieu of facing the risks of ablation.

If medication fails to correct the problem, or patients cannot tolerate drug side effects, ablation represents a treatment option. Patients diagnosed with a certain form of arrhythmia might face greater risks of heart attack, making the risk of ablation more tolerable. This procedure might not correct irregular heart rhythms in all patients, and might need to be repeated.

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