Catheter Ablation for a Fast Heart Rate

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Catheter Ablation for a Fast Heart Rate

Treatment Overview

Catheter ablation is a procedure used to selectively destroy areas of the heart that are causing a heart rhythm problem. During this procedure, thin, flexible wires are inserted into a blood vessel in the thigh, groin, neck, or elbow and threaded up through the blood vessel and into the heart under X-ray guidance. The wires allow the doctor to record the electrical activity of your heart and determine what kind of heart rhythm problem you have.

Then, your doctor will find the tiny areas that are causing the rhythm problem. The wires are used to send energy to those areas in the heart. This energy is in the form of heat or freezing cold. The heat or cold destroys, or ablates, the heart tissue. Destroying this tissue can cure your heart rhythm problem.

Catheter ablation can be called different names based on the type of energy used to create the heat or cold. If heat from radio waves is used, it is called radiofrequency catheter ablation. If cold temperatures are used, it is called cryoablation.

Catheter ablation is done in a hospital where the person can be carefully monitored. The procedure is done with an electrophysiology (EP) study, which can identify specific areas of heart tissue where the fast heart rate may start or where abnormal electrical pathways are located inside or outside the atrioventricular (AV) node. This allows doctors to pinpoint exactly what tiny area of heart muscle to destroy.

A local anesthetic is used at the site where the catheter is inserted. The person usually stays awake during the procedure but may be sedated.

For help on the decision to have catheter ablation, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point. Heart Problems: Should I Have Catheter Ablation?

What To Expect After Treatment

Recovery from catheter ablation is usually quick. Some people may be hospitalized for 1 to 2 days after the procedure so doctors can monitor heart rate and rhythm. Many people go home the same day.

Why It Is Done

Catheter ablation is often used for people with persistent or recurrent fast heart rates that do not respond to drug therapy, or people with certain types of fast heart rates who do not want to take medicine.

How Well It Works

Catheter ablation can eliminate atrioventricular nodal reciprocating tachycardia (AVNRT), a type of supraventricular tachycardia, in almost all cases.

Catheter ablation is often recommended for people with a type of atrioventricular reciprocating tachycardia (AVRT) called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, especially those who have severe symptoms or also have atrial fibrillation or flutter. This procedure can successfully eliminate WPW most of the time. There is a small risk of the arrhythmia recurring even after successful ablation of WPW. But a second session of catheter ablation is usually successful.


Catheter ablation is considered safe.

It has some serious risks, but they are rare. They include:

  • Stroke.
  • Heart attack.
  • Puncture of the heart.
  • Need for emergency heart surgery.
  • Problems with the pulmonary vein.
  • A leaking blood vessel.
  • Nerve damage that causes paralysis of the diaphragm.
  • Pericarditis.
  • Cardiac tamponade.
  • Atrio-esophageal fistula. In this life-threatening condition, a hole forms between the heart's upper chamber and the esophagus.
  • Bleeding.
  • New heart rhythm problems.
  • Death (very rare).

You will have to decide whether the possible benefits of ablation outweigh these risks. Your doctor can help you decide.

In catheter ablation for atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia (AVNRT), damage to the heart's conduction system requires a permanent pacemaker in about 1 out of 100 people.1 With other types of supraventricular tachycardia, where the abnormal cells are not close to the heart's normal conduction system, there is almost no risk of needing a pacemaker.

What To Think About

Death from this procedure is exceedingly rare.

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  1. Blomström-Lunqvist C, et al. (2003). ACC/AHA/ESC guidelines for the management of patients with supraventricular arrhythmias—executive summary: a report of the ACC/AHA/ESC Committee for Practice Guidelines. Circulation, 108(15): 1871–1909.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John M. Miller, MD - Electrophysiology
Last Revised November 26, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.