Tag Archives: afib ablation

Atrial Fibrillation Detection, Personal ECG Monitoring and Ablation: A Patient’s Story

One of the joys of writing this blog is the communication it allows me with discerning  individuals and patients across the planet. One such reader, Mark Goldstein, discovered he was in atrial fibrillation after purchasing an Apple Watch 4.

He now utilizes both the Kardia Mobile ECG and the Apple Watch to aid in his personal monitoring of his atrial fibrillation and has been actively pursuing a rhythm control strategy under the care of his electrophysiologist.

I asked him to share with my readers his experience which recently culminated in an ablation.

What follows is his description with my editorial comments in green.


December 2018 I bought a crazy, expensive Apple Watch. That watch may have saved my life. I spend much of my days at a treaddesk (a combination desk and treadmill). I was curious to find out how much exercise I was doing. I bought the watch, put it on, and starting walking as I do almost every day. Two hours later the watch had an alarm. It was warning me about something called “atrial fibrillation,” It said, “your heart has shown signs of an irregular rhythm.” What! I never heard of afib before. I quickly learned about it. Heart palpitations, no. Pain/pressure in the chest, no. Sweaty, faint, dizzy, etc., no, no. no. I checked the box for tired but I assumed it was because of the amount of exercise I was doing.

The next day I was fortunate that I had a physical scheduled a year ago. I told my doctor that my “crazy, expensive watch” thinks I have afib. My doctor laughed, telling me about how he had checked and probed every part of my body for the last 20 years (the probing part I remembered well). As the exam was concluding, he was puzzled by the afib warning so he grabbed my wrist to check my pulse. A few seconds later he was asking the nurse to give me an EKG. Darn, the watch was correct (and for me it was correct 99% of the time when I had afib and when I was normal – praise to Apple).

Recording from Mark’s Apple Watch 4 showing atrial fibrillation with controlled ventricular response. Heart rate is only 82 beats per minute. The AW algorithm correction identifies atrial fibrillation.

(This is a great example of how atrial fibrillation can be missed by the routine office physical examination. Some patients, especially those with non-rapid heart rates (due to rate slowing meds like beta-blockers or to intrinsically  slow conduction of electrical impulses) are minimally symptomatic and their pulses don’t feel that irregular. Because the first symptom of afib can be stroke I am an advocate of screening)

Shortly I got to meet a cardiologist (like Dr. Pearson, they are all nice people). Another EKG, afib confirmed. As we were talking about my symptoms or lack of symptoms, he said that afib was a bit like Eskimo’s describing snow. Each snowflake is unique and each afib patient is unique. I was in persistent afib. Probably had been in this state for two or three years since my heart rate jumped while sleeping, exercising, and at rest.

(Each afib experience is unique but not all cardiologists are nice people. Mark has been fortunate.)

The treatment plan was a cardioversion, an electrical shock to the heart, or as my cardiologist described it “like rebooting a computer.”

(See my post on cardioversion here.)

As a tech person, I understood that. The risk of not fixing my afib was five times the likelihood of a stroke. The risks were minimal so I chose the cardioversion.

(A common misconception is that ablation or cardioversion eliminates or substantially lowers the risk of stroke in afib. This is not the case. I’ll devote a future post to delve into this issue.)

Cardioversion one lasted four days before my Apple Watch started to detect afib.

(I’ve described in detail how helpful patient utilization of personal ECG monitoring is in letting me know the rhythm status of patients prior to and following cardioversion here.)

The cardiologist next step was cardioversion two along with a drug to help with rhythm control. Number two lasted a month before I saw my heart rate jump again. I thought something was wrong even though my watch was not detecting afib. Another EKG, this time the result was aflutter. The cardioversions were indeed like a reboot of the computer. If you have a virus on your computer, a reboot may be a temporary fix but eventually the virus will return.

(There are many drugs whose purpose is to suppress the recurrence of atrial fibrillation. Mark was prescribed the extended release version of propafenone, a Type IC antiarrhythmic drug (AAD)  similar in efficacy and side effects to flecainide. Type IC AADs should only be used in patients with normal left ventricular function (which was demonstrated in Mark by an echo) and without significant coronary artery disease (typically proven by a negative stress test).

To Ablate Or Not To Ablate

Now I got to meet an electrocardiologist. He said my afib would return and recommended an ablation. He said it was unlikely to be a permanent cure but it would help.

The aflutter disappeared after a day or so. I thought my afib was gone too but should I have an ablation? Ablations are relatively safe but since I was afib free why have the procedure?

I purchased the new Kardia Mobile six-lead portable EKG, a miracle of technology. Highly recommended for peace of mind. Just like my watch, I was seeing normal sinus rhythm. So why get an ablation?

A cardiologist had a YouTube video talking about the decision to have an ablation or any medical procedure. How will it affect the quality of your life or the quantity (how long will you live). This was a simple analysis and I like simple. I heard from my cardiologist that the evidence is that an ablation will unlikely extend my life nor will it reduce my lifespan. It was likely to not affect my lifespan. I confirmed this via independent research (be an informed patient, your outcomes will be better). See Dr Pearson’s articles about the CABANA study and the scientific evidence on ablation).  So an ablation and quantity of life were neutral.

Importance Of Quality Of Life

Quality of life was more interesting. Could I do the things wanted to do with my life? Did afib affect my day-to-day life? Could I walk up a couple of flights of stairs without breathing hard? Was I getting tired at 10AM? Could I exercise? At the time, the answer was easy. I could do everything I wanted to do. The afib affect was just about zero except for blood thinner drugs which I suspect I will take forever. No ablation.

Then “the day.” I woke and checked my sleep app on my phone. Heart rate at night jumped. Hmm! I went to the gym. My heart rate while walking jumped too. I did 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise and my heart rate monitor said 205 beats per minute. My heart was beating so hard I had to sit for five minutes. I knew something was wrong. Then I climbed a couple of flights of stairs, something that would never bother me. I felt a shortness of breath. I knew my afib was back. I also knew that the quality of my life was now being affected. I could not do things I wanted to do. My watch and Kardia Mobile EKG confirmed what I knew.

I called my electrocardiologist and scheduled an ablation. He was right. Afib would return.

(Mark tells me that he was taken off his propafenone one month after the second cardioversion because “the PA said I no longer needed it since I was in sinus rhythm.” My practice would have been to continue the propafenone as long as well tolerated and effective in suppressing afib recurrence. In my experience, the recurrence of Mark’s afib may not have been a failure of medical therapy. I treat patients similar to Mark by continuing the anti-arrhythmic drug since the minimal risks are lowered by regular monitoring and I regularly see maintenance of SR.”)

(Other antiarrhythmic medications were mentioned to Mark but as they required a 3 day hospital stay he was not interested.)


Stay tuned: Part two Of Mark’s post will be about the ablation procedure which he recently underwent.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the WashingtonDC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhgoldstein/

Enlightened Medical Management of Atrial Fibrillation: Part I. Amiodarone, Kardia And Cardioversions

The skeptical cardiologist is a firm believer in the benefit of maintaining normal rhythm in most patients who develop atrial fibrillation (AF, see here.)

Sometimes this can be accomplished by lifestyle changes (losing pounds and cutting back on alcohol , treating sleep apnea, etc.) but more often successful long term maintenance of normal rhythm (NSR) requires a judicious combination of medications and electrical cardioversions (ECV).

It is also greatly facilitated by a compliant and knowledgeable patient who is regularly self-monitoring with a personal ECG device.

My article on electrical cardioversion (see here)  was inspired by a patient (we’ll call her Sandy) who asked me  in April of 2016, “how many times can you shock the heart?”

In 2016 I performed her fifth cardioversion and last week I did her sixth.

Her story of AF is a common one which exemplifies how excellent medical management of AF can cure heart failure and mitral regurgitation and create decades of AF-free, happy and healthy existence.

A Tale Of Six Cardioversions

Sandy had her first episode of atrial fibrillation in 2001 and underwent a cardioversion at that time and as far as she knew had no AF problems for 14 years. I’ve seen numerous cases like this where following a cardioversion, patients maintain NSR for a long time without medications but I’ve also seen  many in whom AF came back in days to months.

In 2015 she saw her PCP for routine follow-up and AF with a rapid rate was detected.  She had been noticing shortness of breath on exertion and a cough at night but otherwise had no clue she was out of rhythm.

When I saw her in consultation she was in heart failure and her echocardiogram demonstrated a left ventricular  ejection fraction of 50% with severe mitral regurgitation.  She quickly went back into AF after an electrical cardioverson (ECV) and  reverted to AF again following a repeat ECV  after four days on amiodarone.

Since amiodarone can take months to reach effective levels in the heart we tried one more time to cardiovert after loading on higher dosage amiodarone for one month. This time she stayed in NSR

Following that cardioversion she has done extremely well. Her shortness of breath resolved and follow up echocardiograms have demonstrated resolution of her mitral regurgitation.

She had purchased a Kardia mobile ECG device for personal monitoring of her rhythm and we were able to monitor her rhythm using the KardiaPro dashboard. Recordings showed she was consistently maintaining NSR after her 2016 ECV

Image from my online KardiaPro Dashboard showing the date and HR of patient’s home ECG recordings leading up to the cardioversion and following it. The orange dots were Kardia diagnosed AF and following the cardioversion the green dots are NSR.

 

 

 

I’ve written extensively on the great value of KardiaPro used in conjunction with the Kardia mobile ECG device for monitoring patients pre and post cardioversion for atrial fibrillation.  Sandy  does a great job of making frequent Kardia ECG recordings, almost on a daily basis so even though she has no symptoms we are alerted to any AF within 24 hours of it happening.

Amiodarone-The Big Medical Gun For Stopping Atrial Fibrillation

The recurrence of AF Sandy had in 2016 occurred 8 months after I had lowered her amiodarone dosage to 100 mg daily.

Amiodarone is a unique drug in the AF toolkit.

It is the by far the most effective drug for maintaining sinus rhythm, an effect that makes it our most useful antiarrhythmic drug (AAD).

  1. It is cheap and well-tolerated.
  2. Uniquely among drugs that we use for controlling atrial fibrillation it takes a long time to build up in heart tissue and a long time to wear off.
  3. It is the safest antiarrhythmic drug from a cardiac standpoint. Unlike many of the other AADs we don’t have to worry about pro-arrhythmia (bringing out more dangerous rhythms such as ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation) with amio.
  4. Amiodarone, however, is not for all patients-it has significant long term side effects that necessitate constant vigilance by prescribing physicians including thyroid, liver and lung toxicity.

I monitor my patients on amiodarone with thyroid and liver blood tests every 4 months and a chest x-ray yearly and I try to utilize the minimal dosage that will keep them out of AF.

In Sandy’s case it was apparent that 100 mg was too little but with an increase back to 200 mg daily, the AF remained at bay.

In early 2017, Sandy read on Facebook that amio was a “poison” and after discussing risks and benefits we decided to lower the dosage to 200 mg alternating with 100 mg. It is common and appropriate for patients to be fearful of the potential long term and serious consequences of medications. For any patient taking amiodarone I always offer the option of stopping the drug with the understanding that there is a strong likelihood of recurrent AF within 3 months once the drug wears off.

In October, 2018 with Sandy continuing to show normal heart function and maintain SR as documented by her daily Kardia ECG tracings we decided to further lower the dosage to 100 mg daily.

Six months later she noted one day that her Kardia reading was showing a heart rate of 159 bpm and diagnosing atrial fibrillation. AF had recurred on the lower dosage of amiodarone.  She had no symptoms but based on prior experience we knew that soon she would go into heart failure.

Image from my online KardiaPro report on Sandy showing all green dots (NSR) until she went into AF (orange dots). Upon discharge from the hospital the daily Kardia recordings now show NSR (green dots).

Thus, her amiodarone was increased and a sixth cardioversion was performed. We could find no trigger for this episode (unless the  bloody mary she consumed at a  Mother’s Day Brunch 2 days prior was the culprit.)

Medical Management With Antiarrhythmics Versus Ablation

Many patients seek a “cure” for atrial fibrillation. They hear from friends and neighbors or the interweb of ablation or surgical procedures that promise this.  Stopafib.org, for example,  promotes these types of procedures saying “Catheter ablation and surgical maze procedures cure atrial fibrillation”

In my experience the majority of patients receiving ablation or surgical procedures (Maze procedure and its variants) ultimately end up having recurrent episodes of atrial fibrillation. Guidelines do not suggest that anticoagulants can be stopped in such patients. Often, they end up on AADs.

I’ve prepared a whole post on ablation for AF but the bottom line is that there is no evidence that ablation lowers the AF patient’s risk of dying, stroke, or bleeding. My post will dig deeper into the risks and benefits of ablation.

There is no cure for AF, surgical, catheter-based or medical.

In the right hands most patients can do very well with medical management combined with occasional cardioversion.

Who posseses the right hands?

In my opinion, most AF patients are best served by a cardiologist who has a special interest in atrial fibrillation and takes the time to read extensively and keep up with the latest developments and guideline recommendations in the area. This does not need to a be an electrophysiologist (EP doctor-one who specializes in the electrical abnormalities of the heart and performs ablations, pacemakers and defibrillators.)

I have a ton of respect for the EP doctors I work with and send patients to but I think that when it comes to doing invasive, risky procedures the decision should be based on a referral/recommendation from a cardiologist who is not doing the procedure.

In many areas of cardiology we are moving toward an interdisciplinary team of diagnosticians, interventionalists, surgeons and non-cardiac specialists to make decisions on performance of high-risk and high-cost but high-benefit procedures like valve repair and replacement, closure of PFOs and implantation of left atrial appendage closure devices.

It makes sense that decisions to perform high-risk , high-cost atrial fibrillation procedures also be determined by a multi-disciplinary team with members who don’t do the procedure.

This is a rule of thumb that can also be applied to many surgical procedures as well.  For example, the decision to proceed to surgical treatment of carotid artery blockages (carotid endarterectomy) is typically  made by the vascular surgeons who perform the procedure. In my opinion this decision should be made by a neurologist with expertise in neurovascular disease combined with a good cardiologist who has kept up with the latest studies on the risks and benefits of carotid surgery and is fully briefed on the latest guideline recommendations.

Unbenightedly Yours,

-ACP