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What Is Catheter Ablation?

Atrial Fibrillation

Catheter ablation is a minimally invasive procedure in which the doctor threads a flexible thin tube (catheter) through the blood vessels to your heart to terminate (ablate) abnormal electrical pathways (signals) in the heart tissue.

If you have atrial fibrillation that has not responded to medication, your doctor may recommend catheter ablation.

Catheter-Based Procedures

The goal of atrial fibrillation catheter ablation is to prevent unwanted electrical currents from traveling from the pulmonary veins (large blood vessels that carry blood from the lungs to the left atrium of the heart) to the atria (the upper chambers of the heart). The standard ablation technique for accomplishing this goal is called pulmonary vein isolation. During the procedure, catheters are used to terminate (ablate) these abnormal electrical currents and stop them from spreading and continuing to cause AF.

Different catheter-based ablation devices and techniques may be used. They generally fall into two categories, based on the type of energy they apply:

  1. Radiofrequency (RF) ablation is heat-based
  2. Cryoablation is cold-based

RF Ablation

Once the abnormal electrical signals, causing the AF or irregular heartbeat, are identified in the pulmonary veins, the RF ablation catheter delivers RF energy to the identified heart tissue, thus, blocking the abnormal electrical pathways. This prevents the abnormal electrical signals, like those in atrial fibrillation, from being conducted.


A refrigerant (cooling material) is delivered within the catheter to cool the catheter tip. This freezes and destroys the cells at the entrance to the pulmonary veins. Once the disruptive tissue is frozen, it can no longer interfere with the heart’s normal rhythm.

One unique feature of cryoablation is that it uses the properties of hypothermia. Another advantage is that when the tissue cools, the catheter sticks to it, which is known as cryoadhesion. Cryoadhesion provides the physician with greater stability of the catheter.

Regardless of the energy source, the aim of catheter ablation is to terminate, or block, the electrical cells which are causing the atrial fibrillation. Together, you and your doctor can determine which type of catheter ablation is best for your medical condition.

Keep in Mind

Although many patients benefit from catheter ablation, results may vary. As with any medical procedure, there are benefits and risks. Your doctor can help you decide if catheter ablation is right for you.

Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.