What Is an Ablation for AFib?

Last updated: March 2023

Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is an irregular heart rhythm caused by random electrical activity. During Afib, the heart’s upper chambers beat too fast and do not contract properly. This can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, and a feeling of “fluttering” or “flopping” in the chest.1

The irregular rhythm does not allow your heart to pump blood. This increases the risk of blood clots because the blood is not moving through your body. If left untreated, Afib can lead to more serious medical problems, such as:1

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Other heart issues

Treatment for Afib can include drugs to slow your heart rate or restore your normal heart rhythm. If drugs do not work, your doctor may recommend an ablation. During an ablation, heat or cold energy creates scars to block the random electrical signals. This restores a normal heartbeat.1

How are ablation procedures performed?

Ablation procedures are mostly performed through catheter ablation. A catheter ablation is where your heart doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube (catheter) through a blood vessel. The catheter is then guided to your heart and used to deliver hot or cold energy to block irregular rhythms.2

A less common ablation procedure is a surgical ablation. This is for people who are already undergoing heart surgery for other reasons and who are in need of an ablation.2

What can I expect?

The risks and benefits of an ablation should be discussed with your doctor to decide if it is right for you. If you choose to move forward with an ablation, here is what you should expect:2

Before your procedure, your doctor may order additional testing. Your doctor will also provide you with instructions on what drugs to continue or stop prior to your procedure. You will also be asked to stop eating and drinking the night before.2

Once you arrive for your procedure, the medical staff will get you ready for the procedure. Your doctor may give you a drug to help you relax (a sedative). Most people receive a light sedative, but others may require drugs to put them fully to sleep (general anesthesia).2

The procedure can take from 3 to 6 hours to complete. If there are complications, the procedure may take longer.2

You may experience slight discomfort:2

  • During movement of the catheter into the heart
  • When the dye is injected
  • When the cold or heat energy is delivered

Tell your doctor immediately if you begin to feel short of breath or severe pain.2

After the ablation is completed, you are taken to a recovery area where you are monitored for complications. Your doctor monitors:2

  • Any bleeding at the site where the catheter was inserted
  • Your blood pressure
  • Your heart rhythm

People who undergo catheter ablation may be sent home on the day of the procedure, depending on their condition. Some may need to stay in the hospital for further monitoring. Most people who have a surgical ablation spend about a week in the hospital.2,3

Can my symptoms return after an ablation?

Most people see an increase in quality of life after having an ablation. You may experience irregular heart rhythms after your ablation. This can be common after a heart procedure and can take some time to stop. Your doctor may recommend taking drugs to prevent or treat these rhythms until they stop.2,3

Afib can return after an ablation. If this occurs, and other treatments are not working, your doctor may recommend a repeat ablation.2

Keep in mind that having an ablation does not decrease the risk of stroke. Talk to your doctor about blood thinners and whether you need to take them to reduce your risk. You should also discuss the risks and benefits of ablation with your doctor to decide if it is right for you.2

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