Medications are available to specifically reduce the risk of stroke (blood thinners), as well as certain medications to help control the AF. Drugs are usually a first line of treatment for AF. If you experience any side-effects, it’s important to discuss these with your doctor before stopping any treatment.
In patients with persistent AF, an electrical cardioversion may be useful. This involves delivering a small electrical shock across the heart, which will often restore the heart to a normal rhythm. This is done via pads on the chest and/or back under a light general anaesthetic. The procedure is very quick and safe and takes a few minutes. However, it isn’t a long-term treatment and most patients will revert to AF eventually.
A catheter ablation is a minimally invasive surgical procedure that can vastly improve AF symptoms, sometimes permanently, and is particularly useful for patients with severe symptoms, or when medication alone isn’t effective or suitable.
The procedure involves passing very fine catheters (wires) through a vein at the top of the leg and into the heart. Electrodes at the tip of the wires are then able to measure electrical signals within the heart and identify problematic areas. Radio-frequency waves transmitted via the wires will then be used to administer heat to the target area, stopping it from sending further AF signals to the heart. Our ‘What is catheter ablation?’ information video explains more.
Catheter ablation can be performed under local anaesthetic with sedation, or general anaesthetic. It’s very quick and patients can usually go home the same day or the following morning. Success rates generally range from 60-90% depending on the severity of the AF, and some people may require more than one procedure to be performed.
An alternative to radio-frequency ablation is the cryoballoon procedure. The procedure is performed in a similar way to catheter ablation but rather than delivering heat, it involves a technology which uses a ‘freezing balloon’ to prevent the signals that trigger AF from entering the heart.
Some people with AF may eventually opt to have a pacemaker fitted – a small implanted device that regulates the heartbeat.
If lifestyle factors could be triggering your AF, then taking steps to address these can be important. This might include stopping smoking, or ensuring you’re getting enough sleep. It’s also vital to ensure any co-existing health conditions that may be contributing to the AF – such as diabetes or high blood pressure – are being well managed. While these aren’t direct treatments for AF, they can play an important part.