New form of technology to treat cardiac arrhythmias

Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center physicians are among the first in the country to use a new form of technology to treat distant, malfunctioning areas inside the heart that cause irregular heartbeats, or cardiac arrhythmias.

Physicians at the VCU Medical Center are among a small group using a new digital magnetic navigation technology called stereotaxis that helps doctors “steer” small treatment catheters throughout the complex anatomy of the heart and surrounding vessels to sites that once were difficult to reach or altogether inaccessible.

“Stereotaxis has the potential to dramatically change the face of interventional cardiology,” said Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., professor of cardiology and director of the cardiac electrophysiology lab at the VCU Medical Center. “The technology gives us the ability to place a catheter anywhere in the heart.”

The VCU Medical Center began performing stereotaxis procedures last month and is one of the first five centers in the United States to use the technology.

Using a real-time X-ray of the heart as a reference, cardiologists guide a flexible, spaghetti-like catheter inside the heart using two powerful magnets positioned on either side of the patient. By changing the intensity and position of the magnets, doctors can precisely manipulate the catheter. Once the catheter is positioned at the site where electrical circuits of the heart are malfunctioning, doctors activate the catheter to treat – or ablate – the area, disrupting the abnormal signals.

“The magnets provide 360-degree movement of the catheter, so physical limitations no longer exist,” Ellenbogen said. “The technology appears to be extremely promising in mapping and ablating arrhythmias in difficult areas.”

Arrhythmias are caused by misfiring electrical impulses in the heart. Traditional treatment has been limited by the location of the arrhythmia, since remote areas in the heart have been difficult or impossible to access because of the tight twists and turns required by manually guided catheters.

“There are many types of arrhythmias and we hope this new technology will enable us to treat even more patients,” said Ellenbogen who added that stereotaxis also might shorten the treatment time for patients.

While many people experience an occasional fluttering of the heart, about 4 million Americans have serious arrhythmia conditions that are life limiting and often life threatening.

As more institutions acquire the stereotaxis technology, the VCU Medical Center will serve as a training site to teach cardiologists from around the country how to use the new equipment.

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