A catheter procedure can be used as a diagnostic tool as well as a form of treatment for certain types of heart disease. Some types of heart disease stem from abnormalities in heart’s structure and may not be apparent immediately. Catheter procedures give surgeons an in-depth look at the arteries leading to your heart and correct structural problems that lead to irregular heartbeats, fatigue, and other potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Cardiac Catheterization

Cardiac catheterization, also referred to as a “heart cath,” is a medical procedure that provides extremely detailed pictures of your coronary arteries. It allows your doctor to determine the type of illness or defect you’re experiencing and, in some cases, to treat the problem.

A catheter is a thin, flexible tube. It’s inserted into a blood vessel—usually in your groin, neck, or arm—and is guided toward your heart. Dye may be inserted into the catheter to help make the blood vessels and arteries more visible.

Cardiac catheterization measures your blood pressure, blood flow to the heart, and the level of oxygen in your blood. Your physician may take blood samples and a biopsy of your heart muscle during the procedure.


Certain congenital heart defects can be corrected through cardiac catherization. The valves of your heart are equipped with structures called leaflets, which allow blood to flow without seeping backwards, away from the heart. Pulmonary valve stenosis is a condition in which valves don’t open as widely as they should. This prevents adequate blood flow to the heart.

A tiny, balloon-like device is attached to the end of the catheter and inflated in the narrowed section near the affected heart valve. The balloon pushes the leaflets open to correct the stenosis. The balloon is removed when the catheter is removed from your vein.

Cardiac catheterization treats septal defects, which are holes between the atria (sides) of your heart. In this case, the catheter carries a patch like an umbrella and places the device across the hole in the septum.

Although you’ll be awake during the catheterization process, you’ll be given sedative medications to keep you comfortable. The medication is delivered through the same intravenous line through which the catheter is strung, so the procedure is minimally invasive. In most cases, the procedure will last between 30 minutes and an hour, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) experts.

Complications and Recovery

Heart cath procedures are performed in a hospital setting, most commonly as outpatient procedures. Preparation includes fasting for at least eight hours prior to catheterization. Risks and complications are uncommon, but may include:

  • accumulation of fluid between your heart and its outer covering
  • low blood pressure readings
  • allergic reaction to the contrast dye
  • blood clots or excessive bleeding
  • heart attack or stroke
  • irregular heartbeat

Recovery from cardiac catheterization is brief. You may be required to lie flat on your back for a few hours post-procedure. This is a precautionary measure against bleeding if the catheter was inserted into a vein in your groin. Residual soreness in the insertion area is possible.

Catheter Ablation

Catheter ablation is a procedure used to treat some kinds of heart arrhythmias, also known as an irregular heartbeat or dysrhythmia. You may be a candidate for catheter ablation if medications don’t control your arrhythmia or if you’re diagnosed with the following:

  • ventricular fibrillation: irregular electrical activity in your heart that leads to life-threatening cardiac arrest
  • ventricular tachycardia: a life-threatening rapid heartbeat that reduces the blood flow to your body
  • atrial fibrillation or flutter: rapid, flutter-like heartbeat that ?occurs as a result of extra electrical impulses
  • accessory pathway: a congenital condition in which additional pathways exist between the heart’s atria and ventricles, causing an irregular beating pattern

The initial steps of a catheter ablation are similar to that of cardiac catheterization. You’ll be sedated and a catheter is threaded through a vein. The main difference is that instead of being outfitted with medication or a corrective device, the catheter is used to channel high levels of energy to the heart. The energy is delivered to the area of your heart that causes your specific type of arrhythmia and “resets” your heart to a normal beating rhythm.

Catheter ablation is a very safe and highly effective procedure. It may take up to eight hours to complete. During this time, your vital signs will be monitored constantly. Recovery time is most often between one and six hours and consists of lying in bed without moving your legs to prevent bleeding. You may experience unusual fatigue for the first couple of days after catheter ablation, paired with occasional skipped or fluttery heartbeats. As you heal, the irregularity will correct itself.