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Heart's Not Aflutter

New procedure for atrial fibrillation

Fluttering palpitations of the heart can be a common complaint among the elderly. A condition called atrial fibrillation is the most common reason people are admitted to a hospital with an irregular heart beat. The problem is also associated with certain heart valve defects.

Atrial fibrillation causes alarming palpitations, though the condition isn't immediately life-threatening. Over time, however, it greatly increases the risk of stroke.

Besides palpitations, symptoms of atrial fibrillation often include shortness of breath, and fatigue. Doctors typically treat it with drugs or electricity to restore a normal heart rhythm. In cases where this initial treatment has failed, a new variation on an old treatment is being used to stop the heart from fluttering.

Known as radiofrequency maze, the technique involves scoring a mazelike pattern of incisions in the left and right atria -- the upper chambers of the heart. The scar tissue that forms as the incisions heal interrupts the electrical connections that leads to the atrial fibrillation.

Although the original maze procedure involved surgical cuts into the heart, the radiofrequency variation uses energy that causes minimal blood loss. One major drawback is that the technique seems to work best when performed during open heart surgery, rather than through a catheter.

This surgery isn't for everyone. A feature from the Portland Oregonian explains that the risk from such major surgery doesn't justify opening up someone just to treat atrial fibrillation, so doctors currently reserve using the maze procedure for patients who are already having heart valves replaced.

A fact sheet from the Mayo Clinic explains how the heart loses its rhythm in atrial fibrillation, and summarizes the range of symptoms and treatment for the condition. And the Cleveland Clinic Foundation offers a guide to helping heart patients select the best doctors and hospitals for treating heart rhythm disorders.

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