Health Watch -- Irregular Heartbeat

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A new technique may help prevent many strokes.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm irregularity. People with this condition have irregular rhythms in the upper chambers of the heart, and about 15 percent of all strokes are associated with atrial fibrillation. The most common sign of this problem is a very rapid heartbeat. It also causes shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, dizziness and fainting. More than 2 million Americans suffer from this problem.

Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas are using a new technique to correct this problem. They're using radio waves to block the part of the heart that causes the irregular rhythm. Before, atrial fibrillation was considered a chronic condition that required ongoing therapy. Dr. Robert Kowal, a UT Southwestern heart specialist who performs this procedure, says the new technique has revolutionized treatment, restoring normal heart rhythm without requiring medication.

The procedure corrects the problem in about 70 percent of patients. In other patients, the problem is often less severe or less frequent. The procedure works best on people who have brief episodes of irregular heartbeat.

When doctors perform this procedure, they insert a slender catheter through a large vein or artery in the groin area, then guide it up to the precise area of the heart that causes the problem. Then radio waves electrically sear that area to isolate it from the rest of the heart. Patients may leave the hospital a couple of days after the procedure, then return to regular activities about a week later.

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March 2004

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