Ablation for atrial fibrillation: an evidence-based analysis

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Ontario Health Technology Assessment Series 2006, 6 (7): 1-63

OBJECTIVE: To review the effectiveness, safety, and costing of ablation methods to manage atrial fibrillation (AF). The ablation methods reviewed were catheter ablation and surgical ablation.

CLINICAL NEED: Atrial fibrillation is characterized by an irregular, usually rapid, heart rate that limits the ability of the atria to pump blood effectively to the ventricles. Atrial fibrillation can be a primary diagnosis or it may be associated with other diseases, such as high blood pressure, abnormal heart muscle function, chronic lung diseases, and coronary heart disease. The most common symptom of AF is palpitations. Symptoms caused by decreased blood flow include dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Some patients with AF do not experience any symptoms. According to United States data, the incidence of AF increases with age, with a prevalence of 1 per 200 people aged between 50 and 60 years, and 1 per 10 people aged over 80 years. In 2004, the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) estimated that the rate of hospitalization for AF in Canada was 582.7 per 100,000 population. They also reported that of the patients discharged alive, 2.7% were readmitted within 1 year for stroke. One United States prevalence study of AF indicated that the overall prevalence of AF was 0.95%. When the results of this study were extrapolated to the population of Ontario, the prevalence of AF in Ontario is 98,758 for residents aged over 20 years. Currently, the first-line therapy for AF is medical therapy with antiarrhythmic drugs (AADs). There are several AADs available, because there is no one AAD that is effective for all patients. The AADs have critical adverse effects that can aggravate existing arrhythmias. The drug selection process frequently involves trial and error until the patient's symptoms subside.

THE TECHNOLOGY: Ablation has been frequently described as a "cure" for AF, compared with drug therapy, which controls AF but does not cure it. Ablation involves directing an energy source at cardiac tissue. For instance, radiofrequency energy uses heat to burn tissue near the source of the arrhythmia. The purpose is to create a series of scar tissue, so that the aberrant electrical pathways can no longer exist. Because the pulmonary veins are the predominant source of AF initiation, the primary goal of ablation is to isolate the pulmonary veins from the left atria through the creation of a conduction block. There are 2 methods of ablation: catheter ablation and surgical (operative) ablation. Radiofrequency energy is most commonly used for ablation. Catheter ablation involves inserting a catheter through the femoral vein to access the heart and burn abnormal foci of electrical activity by direct contact or by isolating them from the rest of the atrium. The surgical ablation is performed minimally invasively via direct visualization or with the assistance of a special scope for patients with lone AF.

REVIEW STRATEGY: In March 2006, the following databases were searched: Cochrane Library International Agency for Health Technology Assessment (first quarter 2006), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (first quarter 2006), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (first quarter 2006), MEDLINE (1966 to February 2006), MEDLINE In-Process and Other Non-indexed Citations (1966 to March 1, 2006), and EMBASE (1980 to 2006 week 9). The Medical Advisory Secretariat also searched Medscape on the Internet for recent reports on trials that were unpublished but that were presented at international conferences. In addition, the Web site Current Controlled Trials ( was searched for ongoing trials investigating ablation for atrial fibrillation. Search terms included: radiofrequency ablation, catheter ablation and atrial fibrillation.

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS: Sixteen RCTs were identified that compared ablation methods in patients with AF. Two studies were identified that investigated first-line therapy for AF or atrial flutter. Seven other studies examined patients with drug-refractory, lone AF; and the remaining 7 RCTs compared ablation plus heart surgery to heart surgery alone in patients with drug-refractory AF and concomitant heart conditions. First-line Catheter Ablation for Atrial Fibrillation or Atrial Flutter Both studies concluded that catheter ablation was associated with significantly improved long-term freedom from arrhythmias and quality of life compared with medical therapy. These studies included different patient populations (those with AF in one pilot study, and those with atrial flutter in the other). Catheter ablation as first-line treatment is considered experimental at this time. Catheter Ablation Versus Medical Therapy in Patients With Drug-Refractory, Lone Atrial Fibrillation In this review, catheter ablation had success rates (freedom from arrhythmia) that ranged from 42% to 90% (median, 74%) in patients with drug-refractory, lone AF. All 3 of the RCTs comparing catheter ablation to medical therapy in patients with drug-refractory, lone AF found a significant improvement in terms of freedom from arrhythmia over a minimum of 12 months follow-up (P<.05). Ablation Plus Heart Surgery Versus Heart Surgery Alone in Patients With Atrial Fibrillation It is clear that patients with drug-refractory AF who are undergoing concomitant heart surgery (usually mitral valve repair or replacement) benefit significantly from surgical ablation, in terms of long-term freedom from AF, without substantial additional risk compared to open heart surgery alone. This group of patients represents about 1% of the patients with atrial fibrillation, thus the majority of the burden of AF lies within the patients with lone AF (i.e. those not requiring additional heart surgery).

CONCLUSION: Catheter ablation appears to be an effective treatment for patients with drug-refractory AF whose treatment alternatives are limited. Ablation technology is continually evolving with increasing success rates associated with the ablation procedure.

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