August 2001
Taking Electrical Repairs to Heart

With all the concern about electrical shortages in the news, you might be glad to hear about one source of electrical current that's pretty darn reliable: your heart! It's true—your heart has its own electrical system. The electrical impulses (60-100 per minute) start in the sinoatrial node (SA node), a small cluster of cells in the heart's right atrium (upper chamber). The impulses travel through the heart along conduction pathways, like electricity flowing through power lines, making the heart's chambers contract to pump out blood.

And for most of us, it's an electrical supply with a guaranteed lifetime warrantee against defects. (In one year, the human heart beats more than 30 million times. The heart of a 70-year old has lub-dubbed more than 2 ½ billion times!) But for some of us, a glitch in the heart's wiring can cause problems with the rhythm of the heartbeat—problems that can lead to dizziness, fainting—even to cardiac arrest.

Medications can control some arrhythmias (rhythm disorders) — as long as you keep taking them. Pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, which also help regulate heart rhythm, are small, battery-operated devices that are placed beneath the skin of the upper chest. Pacemakers keep the heart from beating too slowly. Implantable defibrillators (which also have built-in pacemakers) are able to stop rapid, potentially lethal heart rhythms when they occur. (This is the type of procedure that Vice President Richard Cheney recently had to protect his heart from beating too fast.)

But now catheter ablation, a sophisticated new procedure, is being done in The Heart Institute at Bridgeport Hospital. Ablation can cure—not just control, but cure, certain kinds of rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), in a procedure requiring only a small incision, without medication and without the need for a device to regulate the heartbeat.

Heart Tests in The Heart Institute's specially equipped electrophysiology laboratory are used to determine the area where the electrical flow is disrupted. Then, in the 2-6 hour ablation procedure, a special catheter is inserted through a vein in the groin, arm, shoulder, or neck, and guided into the heart to the problem spot (See illustration). The tip of the catheter heats up and painlessly destroys the surrounding tissue, so the heart's electrical impulses can resume their normal circuit.

"Patients remain awake during the procedure, though they are given sedatives to help them nap. They usually go home the next day, and can go back to normal activity within a few weeks," says Bridgeport Hospital electrophysiologist Craig McPherson, MD.

"Catheter ablation is a relatively low-risk procedure and it is 85-98% successful in curing the problem," says Jeffrey Banker, MD, also a Bridgeport Hospital-affiliated electrophysiologist.

Now, if only the nation's electrical energy problems could be solved as painlessly!

For a brochure about The Heart Institute at Bridgeport Hospital, call 384-4444 (out of area, 800-357-2396). To learn more, visit our Heart Institute website.

For a referral to a physician who can perform catheter ablation, call Bridgeport Hospital Physician Referral at 888-357-2396.

WHAT'S IN A WORD?

  • ablation: process of destroying or removing
  • arrhythmia: an abnormal rhythm of the heart (too slow, too fast, or uneven), which can cause the heart to pump less effectively
  • catheter: a long, thin, flexible tube that can be inserted through an incision or needle prick into blood vessels, or through openings in the body
  • electrophysiologist: a cardiologist with specialty training in conducting and analyzing electrophysiology tests
  • electrophysiology laboratory: place where tests are done to evaluate the heart's electrical system, and where rhythm problems can be treated
  • implantable defibrillator: a small electronic device, placed within the chest cavity, that can stop certain abnormal heart rhythms with a small electric shock
  • pacemaker: a small device implanted under the skin (usually in the shoulder area) to regulate the heartbeat