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What are the Risks Associated with a Pulmonary Vein Ablation Procedure?

Floroscopy image of catheter placement

Floroscopy image of catheter placement

By Steve S. Ryan, PhD

Pulmonary Vein Catheter Ablation is considered a “low-risk procedure.” In practice, for most A-Fib patients, the actual risks are so small that it’s safer getting a PVA than not getting one. In fact, the catheter-related complication rate fell to less than 2% in 2010. (As a point of reference, the complication rate of the common appendectomy is 18%.)

A PVA is safer and certainly feels a lot better than a life in A-Fib and/or a life on antiarrhythmic drugs and anticoagulants. One reason people get a PVA is so that they don’t have to live the rest of their lives on these drugs.

Risks Step By Step

1. When the catheters are inserted, there is a “small risk” of damaging the veins and/or arteries which could cause bleeding. This can be repaired surgically. It’s similar to, though obviously not the same as, the risk you take when you donate blood.

Your groin will generally have two access site points, one on each side. After a Pulmonary Vein Ablation, some minor bruising is common at each site with minor soreness as if you had banged the area. Bruising may occasionally be seen to extend down the leg. This is normal as is an occasional small quarter sized bump in the area. (If larger swelling or more significant pain occurs at the area, please contact the electrophysiologist who did the procedure.)

2. To get to the left atrium which is usually the source of most A-Fib signals, the doctor must pass the catheter through the transseptal wall between the left and right atria. This puncture technique and the catheter manipulation involved in the actual ablation increase the chance of heart puncture and bleeding through the heart walls (tamponade). If this happens, blood may fill the sac surrounding the heart (the pericardium) and may have to be drawn off with a needle and catheter. Very rarely, surgery may be required. The more experienced and skillful your doctor is, the less this catheter manipulation is a risk.

Note: The doctors don’t just punch through the transseptal wall. The catheter is often inserted through a membrane formed when your heart developed as a fetus. In early fetal development your two atria weren’t completely separate. As the transseptal wall formed, this opening between the two atria (the foramen ovale) closed up to form what is called the fossa ovalis. The catheter is inserted through this former opening or membrane. After the ablation procedure, this membrane closes back up and heals over.
[In some adults like Tedy Bruschi, linebacker of the New England Patriots, this foramen ovale opening between the two atria doesn’t grow closed. This allows small blood clots that otherwise would be absorbed in the lungs to pass from one atrium to the other, and then travel to the brain. It’s estimated that nearly 20% of adults have a foramen ovale opening between the two atria that never closes up completely.]

For most A-Fib patients, the actual risks are so small that it’s safer getting a PVA than not getting one.
3. As in A-Fib, there is a risk of blood clotting and stroke, which is why most medical centers use a blood thinner like Heparin during the procedure to prevent clotting during the application of RF energy to heart tissue. Also, before an ablation procedure a patient is often checked to see if there is any pooling or clotting of blood in the atria. If any clots are found, medications can be used to dissolve them. According to figures from the French Bordeaux group, “the risk for thromboembolic (stroke) events is lower than 0.5%.”

4. When the pulmonary vein openings are ablated or isolated, there is a risk of damaging and narrowing these vein openings. If a significant amount of this swelling (Stenosis) occurs, the doctors may have to stretch the narrowed area or insert a stent to keep the veins open. This ability to correct Stenosis correspondingly lessens your risk.

[Note: In the early days of Pulmonary Vein Ablations, Stenosis (defined as over 50% narrowing of the vein opening) was a major problem. But with more experience, the use of irrigated-tip low wattage catheters, and ablating in the antrum area outside of the Pulmonary Vein openings, it is less of a problem. Ask the doctor or medical center you are working with how often Stenosis occurs due to their ablation procedures and how severe it generally is. If they can’t provide those figures, think about going somewhere else. You will find that most major medical centers now have fairly low rates of Stenosis.]

5. A possible risk to consider is the amount of X-ray exposure during an ablation procedure. Most catheter ablation procedures use fluroscopy, a type of X-ray with a fluorescent screen, to see inside the heart and to position the catheter(s). Many medical centers have limits to how much fluroscopy you can be exposed to and will stop a procedure if you exceed it.

[Since this article was written in 2010: Many centers are now using non-fluroscopy type imaging such as MRI which greatly reduces the amount of X-ray exposure.]

6. Then there is the unforeseen, the strange things that happen sometimes in operations―allergic reactions to medications, anesthesia problems (some centers put you under completely, others don’t, “extremely small risk of infection, valve damage, or heart attack” during the procedure. But the doctors and staff are prepared to deal with emergencies and complications and they monitor you very closely.

What’s the Risk of Dying?

There is very little risk of dying from a Pulmonary Vein Ablation (Isolation) procedure. “To the best of our knowledge, no deaths have been reported in the literature in more than 2000 PV isolation procedures.” Recently, however, there have been 20+ deaths reported due to a very rare complication called “atrial-esophageal fistula” where a hole forms between the atrium and the esophagus within 2-3 weeks after the ablation. Heat from the ablation catheter may irritate the esophagus where it rests next to the heart. Over time acid reflex may eat through this weakened area of the esophagus. This may be due to using high wattage catheters in the back of the atrium near the esophagus. If you develop unexplained fevers exceeding 100 degrees anytime within the first 3 weeks post-ablation, you need to contact the electrophysiologist who performed your procedure. Low grade fevers of around 99 degrees are common in the first day or so post-ablation.

After an ablation, many centers give patients a Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) (such as Nexium) to prevent stomach acids from affecting the esophagus. If your center doesn’t do that, you can take a Proton Pump Inhibitor yourself for 2-3 weeks after your ablation. In the U.S. one doesn’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy a PPI. Added 9/11/17: Cecelia writes that taking the Proton Pump Inhibitor omeprozole (Prilosec) caused her muscle weakness, weak legs and arms (and anxiety). She took it for six weeks during her blanking period after her ablation to protect the esophagus. Pantoprozole (Protonix) seemed to have the same effect on her. Muscle weakness is listed as a possible side effect of reflux meds.

Rare Complications

Another rare complication is damage to the Phrenic nerve in the Pericardium around the heart due to heat from the ablation catheter. This may result in breathing difficulties. Many centers now pace the diaphragm during the ablation to prevent phrenic nerve injury.

An even more rare complication is getting the loop/mapping catheter caught in the mitral valve. In some cases it may require open heart surgery to remove it. The more experienced and skillful your doctor is, the less likely this is to happen. (When talking with a potential ablation doctor, you may want to ask how often do the doctor’s patients have to be taken for open heart surgery.)

After a Pulmonary Vein Ablation you may have some minor chest pain for the next week or so. The pain will often worsen with a deep breath or when leaning forward. This is pericardial chest pain from the ablation and is generally not of concern. It should resolve within a week although it might increase for a day or so after the ablation.

Since Pulmonary Vein Ablation is a relatively new procedure, we don’t have much data yet on long term risks. One long term study of Pulmonary Vein Ablations (Isolations) has indicated that many of the bad remodeling effects of A-Fib such as enlargement of the left atria and the ability of the atria to contract can be reversed after a successful PVA(I).

AF Symposium: In-depth Review of Ablation Complications

For a more extensive catalog of every conceivable complication, even the most rare, see Catheter Ablation Complications: A 2014 In-depth Review and Comparison with Anticoagulation Drug Therapy 

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Return to Index of Articles: Catheter Ablation

Last updated: Monday, September 11, 2017

References for this Article
Updated March 2013

• Atrial Fibrillation Educational Material. University of Pennsylvania. 2002, p.7.

• ]Jais, P. “Ablation Therapy for Atrial Fibrillation: Past, Present and Future,” Cardiovascular Research, Vol. 54, Issue 2, May 2002, P. 343.

• Atrial Fibrillation Educational Material. University of Pennsylvania. 2002, p.7.

• Jais, P. “Ablation Therapy for Atrial Fibrillation: Past, Present and Future,” Cardiovascular Research, Vol. 54, Issue 2, May 2002, P. 343.

• Catheter Ablation for AF. The London AF Centre. Last accessed November 5, 2012

• Romano, M. A. et al.Atrial reduction plasty Cox maze procedure: extended indications for atrial fibrillation surgery. Ann Thorac Surg 2004;77:1282-1287. Accessed Nov 4, 2014.

• Pappone, C. et al. “Circumferential Pulmonary Vein Ablation for Atrial Fibrillation: the Milan Experience,” Cardiac Electrophysiology and Pacing Unit of the Department of Cardiology, San Raffaele University Hospital, Milan, Italy. 2003. p. 7.

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