What is a catheter procedure?

A catheter procedure can be 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 the heart’s structure. They may not be apparent immediately. Catheter procedures give surgeons an in-depth look at the arteries leading to the heart. They also allow them to correct structural problems that lead to irregular heartbeats, fatigue, and other potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Cardiac catheterization

Cardiac catheterization, also known as a heart catheterization, 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 have and, in some cases, to treat the problem.

A catheter is a thin, flexible tube. Your doctor inserts it into a blood vessel and guides it toward your heart. They’ll usually use a vessel in your groin, neck, or arm. They may insert dye 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 doctor may take blood samples and a biopsy of your heart muscle during the procedure.

Catheter ablation

Catheter ablation is a procedure that your doctor can perform to treat some kinds of heart arrhythmias, which are also known as irregular heartbeats or dysrhythmias. You may be a candidate for catheter ablation if medications don’t control your arrhythmia. Other reasons for catheter ablation include:

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

Doctors can also perform other tests or procedures during a cardiac catheterization. For example, they can correct certain congenital heart defects, such as pulmonary valve stenosis. 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 attaches to the end of the catheter and inflates in the narrowed section near the affected heart valve. The balloon pushes the leaflets open to correct the stenosis. Your doctor then removes the balloon along with the catheter.

Your doctor can also use cardiac catheterization to treat septal defects. These are holes between the atria, or 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.

The initial steps of a catheter ablation are similar to that of cardiac catheterization. Your doctor will sedate you and thread a catheter through a vein. They’ll then channel high levels of energy to the heart via the catheter. The catheter delivers the energy to the area of your heart that causes your specific type of arrhythmia. This destroys a very small area that’s causing the extra impulses and rapid heartbeats. This area is about 1/5 of an inch. The procedure resets your heart to a normal beating rhythm.

Although you’re awake during the catheterization process, you’ll receive sedative medications to keep you comfortable. The medication enters your system through the IV that houses the catheter, so the procedure is minimally invasive.

Heart catheter procedures occur in a hospital setting, most commonly as outpatient procedures. Preparation includes fasting for at least eight hours before catheterization. Risks are uncommon but may include:

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

The recovery time after a cardiac catheterization is brief. You may need to lie flat on your back for a few hours after the procedure. This is a precautionary measure against bleeding. Residual soreness in the insertion area is possible.

Catheter ablation is a very safe and highly effective procedure. It may take up to eight hours to complete. During this time, staff will monitor your vital signs constantly. During recovery, you’ll lie in bed without moving your legs to prevent bleeding. You may experience unusual fatigue for the first couple of days after catheter ablation. Your heart may occasionally skip a beat or feel fluttery. As you heal, this irregularity will correct itself.

Doctors use heart catheter procedures to diagnose and treat a variety of conditions, including congenital defects and irregular heartbeats. They give your doctor the ability to take an in-depth look at the structure of your heart. The risks are uncommon, and recovery time is fairly brief.