New Way to Treat Common Heart Problem

Doctors have a new way to treat the most common form of irregular heart rhythm in the United States.

Atrial fibrillation used to be considered a nuisance and something many people lived with. Now, new studies show it increases your stroke risk five times and can decrease life expectancy.

For Terry Tyler, an active life working as an auto tech and relaxing on scuba diving adventures was slowly shifting into slow gear. He says he felt fatigued, had bouts of dizziness and his energy level dropped to zero. It wasn't until he got dizzy and passed out at work that he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

Cardiac surgeon Dr. Sanjay Tripathi of the Cotton-O'Neil Heart Center in Topeka says atrial fibrillation is a problem with the electrical current that controls the heart beat. In atrial fibrillation, he says, the electrical impulse is travelling through abnormal pathways, so it rotates in circles which causes irregular and fast rhythm.

Dr. Tripathi says, in the past, medication was used to control the rhythm. Terry tried that for two years, but it stopped working. That's when Dr. Tripathi suggested he undergo the Cox-Maze procedure.

The procedure is a way of creating scar tissue to act much like insulation on an electrical wire. He says the scar tissue is created around the pulmonary veins on all sides, preventing the abnormal impulse from travelling from the pulmonary veins to the rest of the heart.

The procedure's been around for several years, but only recently the way Terry had it done. Instead of a traditional operation cutting through the breast bone and physically cutting and sewing the heart muscle, Dr. Tripathi makes three small keyhole incisions, then inserts a small camera to guide placement of radio frequency, microwave or ultrasound energy to create the scar tissue.

Dr. Tripathi says the minimally-invasive approach means less pain and shorter recovery time for patients. He says it also minimizes the risks associated with major surgery, such as infection. While some people, such as those who've had previous open heart surgery, cannot undergo the minimally-invasive procedure, Dr. Tripathi says the minimally-invasive approach opens up a fix for the problem to many who cannot undergo traditional surgery.

Terry spent three days in the hospital and was back to work in just two weeks. Now, he's taking everything in stride.

"I feel great, like I have a new life," he says. "Life is good. Before, it was okay - now it's good!"

To learn about the signs of atrial fibriallion, visit the American Heart Association's web site. For details on the Cox-Maze procedure, visit the Cleveland Clinic.

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