More than 5 million Americans are currently affected by atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib is a serious cardiac rhythm disorder and a common cause of stroke and heart failure. Cardiac electrophysiologist, Erick Burton, M.D. of Lee Physician Group, is the first physician in Southwest Florida to perform and offer Cryo-balloon ablation as a means of effective, minimally invasive treatment of AFib.
A heart in AFib usually beats significantly faster and more irregular than normal. When the heart does not contract at a normal rhythm, blood is not pumped completely out of the atria and may pool and clot. When left untreated, AFib patients have a five times higher chance of having a stroke, and are at greater risk of developing heart failure.
“AFib results in 350,000 hospitalizations a year and people older than 40 have about one in four chance of developing it in their lifetime,” says Dr. Burton. “Nearly 35 percent of all AFib patients will have a stroke at some point in their life.”
Most AFib ablation procedures focus on destroying cells around the pulmonary vein to block or isolate the abnormal electrical impulses. AFib is caused by a misfiring of electrical impulses from abnormal tissues in this region of the heart. Radiofrequency catheter ablation (RF), which uses heat energy, is currently the most common interventional treatment for AFib worldwide. In both RF and cryo ablation, the heart is accessed through a blood vessel in the leg by inserting a small catheter that travels up into the left atrium.
“The cryo ablation procedure uses a balloon device filled with a liquid nitrogen compound to freeze tissues near the pulmonary veins. It tends to be a much shorter procedure and provide more consistent and homogenous lesions than radiofrequency catheter ablation. Because the procedure tends to be shorter and there are not as many lesions delivered, patients tend to tolerate it better.” The risk of procedural clotting or charring is also markedly reduced with the cryo method.
Although AFib can be a marker for more serious medical problems such as heart valve disease, hypertension, chronic lung disease or coronary artery disease, more than 10 percent of patients have no other disease or illness. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, dizziness, fatigue, chest discomfort and shortness of breath; often leaving patients weak, tired and sometimes incapacitated.
Kevin Anderson, of Fort Myers, underwent cryo ablation on October 8. “I stayed in the hospital overnight. It was not an overwhelmingly tough thing to bounce back from. I have not experienced any symptoms since. It was just a matter of just a couple days and I was feeling fine,” he says. “I’ve been taken off two different medications I was on to control my AFib. The biggest thing is the weight of not worrying if it’s going to get worse, or what type of effect it’s going to have on me physically. Knowing it’s behind me and hopefully no more issues going forward, peace of mind.”
Scientific studies suggest the success rate of AFib ablation with one operation is about 90 percent with the cryo-balloon, compared to about 70 percent with the traditional radiofrequency energy. There is a lower likelihood for needing a second procedure compared to radiofrequency ablation, as well. Recovery time for most patients is minimal, with nominal discomfort.
“Most patients feel like they are back to their old selves within a day or two,” Dr. Burton says.
Cryo ablation is not a cure for atrial fibrillation, but after the procedure many patients eliminate the need for medication. “Often, blood thinner needs to be continued indefinitely, but occasionally it can be stopped once there is a high degree of confidence that the atrial fibrillation has been eliminated,” says Dr. Burton