Conference Coverage

Before you refer for AF ablation



– Appropriate counseling before making a referral for atrial fibrillation ablation entails helping the patient understand what can realistically be expected in the way of benefit, along with instilling awareness of the warning signals heralding serious late complications, Samuel J. Asirvatham, MD, said at the annual Cardiovascular Conference at Snowmass sponsored by the American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Samuel J. Asirvatham of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn

Dr. Samuel J. Asirvatham

“Who to steer toward ablation? You have to have a symptomatic patient – that’s a given. For the ones who are paroxysmal, the ones with a relatively normal heart, there’s a much better chance that you’ll help manage their symptoms with ablation than if they have persistent or permanent A-fib. Notice I do not use the word ‘cure’ for A-fib. We talk about controlling symptoms and decreasing frequency, because the longer follow-up you have with intensive monitoring, the more you realize that patients still tend to have some A-fib,” explained Dr. Asirvatham, an electrophysiologist who is professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The rationale for early atrial fibrillation (AF) ablation in younger patients with troublesome symptoms of paroxysmal AF despite pharmacologic attempts at rate or rhythm control is that it will arrest the progression from an atrial arrhythmia that has just a few triggers readily neutralized by pulmonary vein isolation to persistent AF with a diseased heart and a multitude of arrhythmia trigger points coming from many directions.

A solid candidate for ablation of paroxysmal AF has about a 75% likelihood of having a successful first ablation procedure, with substantial improvement in symptoms and no need for medication. Another 9%-10% will achieve marked reduction in symptom burden upon addition of antiarrhythmic agents that weren’t effective before ablation.

Late complications can be deceptive

Periprocedural stroke/transient ischemic attack, tamponade, or bleeding on the table are infrequent complications readily recognized by the interventionalist. More problematic are several late complications which are often misinterpreted, with the resultant delay causing major harm.

  • Pulmonary vein stenosis. This complication of inadvertent ablation inside the pulmonary vein manifests as shortness of breath, typically beginning about 4 weeks post ablation.

“This is very different from the shortness of breath they had with atrial fibrillation. They almost always have a cough that they didn’t have before, and they may have hemoptysis. It’s very important to recognize this promptly, because before it closes completely we can do an angioplasty and stent the vein with good results. But once it closes completely, it becomes an extremely complicated procedure to try to reopen that vein,” according to Dr. Asirvatham.

Very often the patient’s general cardiologist, chest physician, or primary care physician fails to recognize what’s happening. He cited an example: He recently had a patient with a cough who was first referred to an infectious disease specialist, who ordered a bronchoalveolar lavage. The specimen grew atypical actinomycetes. That prompted a referral to thoracic surgery for an open-lung biopsy. But that procedure required cardiac clearance beforehand. It was a cardiologist who said, ‘Wait – all this started after you had an ablation?’

“That patient had pulmonary vein stenosis. And, unfortunately, that complication has not gone away. Being a referral center for pulmonary vein isolation, we see just as many cases of pulmonary vein stenosis today as we did a few years ago,” he said.


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