by Steve S. Ryan, PhD, June 2014
Ed Grossman recently wrote and asked me about recurrence of Atrial Fibrillation after a successful catheter ablation:
“I’ve read studies from the French Bordeaux group that talk about A-Fib recurring after a catheter ablation, that A-Fib tends to come back. Can A-Fib be cured permanently by a catheter ablation? After a successful catheter ablation, what are my chances of A-Fib recurring?”
The French Bordeaux group pioneered the original Pulmonary Vein Isolation procedure.
The studies you refer to were done in 2001-2002 with 100 patients. There’s been a great deal of improvement in the procedure since then, such as the use of irrigated tip catheters and the increased use of circumferential pulmonary vein isolation (PVI). (For example, when I had my procedure done in Bordeaux in 1998, they did what was then called a focal ablation in only one of my pulmonary vein openings. I’ve been A-Fib free “cured” for 16 years. Today though, they routinely isolate all four pulmonary veins.)
Don’t let the threat of recurrence put you off of having a catheter ablation. Recurrence is often influenced by several factors unrelated to the actual catheter ablation procedure, some of which you can control.
Certain Health Conditions Cause Recurrence of A-Fib
There are health conditions which tend to cause A-Fib to recur including hypertension, obesity, sleep apnea, diabetes, smoking and binge drinking. Controlling these conditions will reduce the risk of recurrence.
For example, let’s say patient “Joe” has A-Fib and sleep apnea, then has a successful A-Fib ablation and is A-Fib free. Because of his sleep apnea, Joe’s A-Fib is more likely to recur than someone without sleep apnea. So much so, that Electrophysiologists (EPs) today are insisting that A-Fib patients with sleep apnea be treated and use devices like a CPAP breathing machine before they can get a catheter ablation. In one study sleep apnea was an independent predictor for catheter ablation failure after a single procedure.
Also, those with long-standing persistent A-Fib, or those with vascular heart disease, or cardiomyopathy are more likely to have a recurrence.
Less recurrence for those with Lone A-Fib
Around 50% of A-Fib patients have no apparent pre-existing medical condition—called “lone A-Fib” because there’s no other contributing health condition. After a successful catheter ablation, those with lone a-fib are less likely to have a recurrence. But some lone A-Fib patients do have recurrences. (Some studies estimate a 7% chance of recurrence out to five years, though most recurrences occur in the first six to 12 months.)
So why the recurrence for lone a-fib patients? Heart tissue is very tough and tends to heal itself after an ablation. Or, there may be gaps in the ablation lines and the spots may require a touch-up ablation (usually with a much shorter procedure time and easier to perform than the first ablation).
The joy of Years of living in ‘Normal Sinus Rhythm’
Let’s discuss a worst-case scenario. You have a catheter ablation that makes you A-Fib free. Then three years later you develop A-Fib again. But the bottom line is you’ve been “cured” for three years. (The dictionary defines “cure” as “restoration of health; recovery from disease”.)
Most people with symptomatic A-Fib are overjoyed to have a normal heart beat and a normal life for three years, to be freed from both A-Fib symptoms and from the anxiety, fear and depression that often accompany A-Fib.
(See the personal experience stories by patients who had recurrence and a successful second ablation: Jay Teresi, “In A-Fib at Age 25“ and Robert Dell’s A-Fib Experience: “Daddy is always tired”.)
Only people with A-Fib appreciate how wonderful it is to be in ‘Normal Sinus Rhythm’ (NSR). For most of us, catheter ablation provides “acceptable” long-term relief from A-Fib. And it’s comforting to know, you can go back for another ablation, if you need it.
Catheter Ablation is the Best Hope for a “Cure”
Today, catheter ablation is the best A-Fib treatment offering hope for a “cure”—for making you A-Fib free. Current medications, for the most part, don’t work or have bad side effects or lose their effectiveness over time. Electrocardioversions usually don’t last. Surgical approaches work, but are generally more invasive, traumatic, and risky, and not recommended as first-line therapy for A-Fib.
Yes, A-Fib can return after a catheter ablation; the benefit may not be permanent. But, as a point of reference, consider heart by-pass operations or heart stents—are they always permanent? (Often they aren’t.) Do patients need additional surgeries? (Often they do.) With the option to return for an additional or “touch-up” procedure, catheter ablation is still today’s best hope for a life free from the burden of Atrial Fibrillation.
Last updated: Friday, May 26, 2017