One million British patients with a ‘racing heart’ condition that puts them at high risk of stroke could soon be offered super-fast surgery that slashes time on the operating table by a third.
The new, highly accurate operation is being used to treat atrial fibrillation, in which heart nerves misfire, leading to a rapid, irregular pulse. The rhythm problem can lead to blood pooling and clotting inside the heart – and if that clot travels to the head, it can cut off the blood supply to the brain, triggering a catastrophic stroke.
The procedure, known as ablation, involves burning millimetre-wide areas of the heart using high-powered radio-frequency energy emitted by a tiny probe, threaded through an artery in the leg. This normalises rogue electrical activity that causes the abnormal rhythms.
Conventional ablation has been used to treat these disturbances for 20 years, but until now this has been a difficult procedure, taking about three hours. Tony Blair suffered from the problem and underwent an operation for it in 2004 while he was Prime Minister.
The new version, which was carried out for the first time in the UK last month, takes an hour. Each ‘blast’ of heat creates a burn in just four seconds, compared with 30 to 40 seconds previously.
Because the heart continues to beat during the ablation procedure, surgeons have to aim the probe’s rays at a moving target. As the new-high energy method creates a burn much faster, it allows them to be far more precise.
Professor Andre Ng, consultant cardiologist at Leicester’s Glenfield Hospital, was the first surgeon in Britain to use the technology.
He said: ‘Ablation is tricky, as an effective burn means keeping the probe on the same spot for 30 to 40 seconds at a time.
‘It is like cleaning the top edges of a chimney using a long stick during an earthquake.
‘The new technology greatly reduces the time needed for each ablation [burn], which not only speeds up the entire operation but also makes it more accurate.’
Prof Ng says he can now perform four procedures a day, rather than two.
The first UK patient to undergo the treatment was Tim Pay, 57, a factory worker from Hinckley, Leicestershire, who was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation 18 months ago. During terrifying attacks while he was in bed at night, his heart would race to almost 200 beats per minute. The average rest rate for a middle-aged man is between 60 and 100.
Beta-blocker drugs, used to slow the pulse, failed to work, but since having the new procedure, called Qdot Micro, earlier this month, Mr Pay says he’s hasn’t suffered a single attack.
The new, highly accurate operation is being used to treat atrial fibrillation, in which heart nerves misfire, leading to a rapid, irregular pulse (file photo)
‘I’d be in bed and suddenly notice my heart beating rapidly – it felt like I’d been for a long, heavy run. When it was at its worst, I was having an attack once a week and they would sometimes last for seven hours. I’d go to work in the morning and my heart would still be racing. Since the op, I’ve felt fine. I’m recovered, back at work, and I’ve not had a single attack.’
During the operation, the patient is given local anaesthetic before a needle is inserted through the femoral artery, the main blood vessel in the front of the thigh. The Qdot Micro probe is threaded on the end of a long flexible tube – a catheter – through the circulatory system, and into the heart.
The Qdot is fitted with a magnetic tip which is able to scan the inside of the heart, providing surgeons with a 3D computer image ‘map’ of the organ.
Once they have a clear picture, the same probe is used to emit blasts of radio frequency energy to create small burns which form circular ‘scars’ that act as barriers, blocking the misfiring electrical signals in the heart.
A second catheter is inserted into the heart, with another probe that measures the pulse. This allows surgeons to carefully monitor heart rate, and check that it is normal before finishing the operation.
The probe is removed and the incision in the leg is stitched up. Recovery time is ten days to two weeks. Prof Ng says: ‘This will allow us to treat more patients and treat them effectively.’
Try THIS with Mariam Al-Roubi: Neck rub that eases tension
Relieve a tight and achy neck with this soothing stretch. It targets the fascia – the layer of connective tissue which surrounds muscle – on the side of the neck, which can be a source of pain and discomfort. Try the stretch sitting down or standing up, and within just a few minutes, your shoulders and neck will feel lighter.
Try the stretch sitting down or standing up, and within just a few minutes, your shoulders and neck will feel lighter
- Put one hand over the top of your head and place it on the side of your face above your ear, with fingers pointing down. Use the hand to gently pull your head to the side.
- Place the other hand on the same side of the neck as your first hand, just below the ear. Press your fingertips into the neck and slowly drag them down towards your shoulder.
- Bring your head back to a neutral position and your hand back below the ear. Repeat the same motion five times.
- Switch sides, and repeat the same movement on the other side of your neck.