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Cleveland Clinic study points to ablation as better inital treatment for atrial fibrillation than medication

Between 2.7 million and 6.1 million people in the United States are affected by atrial fibrillation.

CLEVELAND — A new Cleveland Clinic study has shown promise for treating atrial fibrillation patients. The results point to ablation as a potentially more effective method treatment than the current standard-of-care management using medication.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between 2.7 million and 6.1 million people in the United States are affected by the disorder. Those with the disease are estimated five-to-seven times more likely to have a stroke than the general population.

RELATED: Cleveland Clinic extends postponement of nonessential surgeries that require hospital stays through November 20

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is usually treated first with anti-arrhythmic drugs; however, ablation methods, like cryoballoon ablation, have drawn increased interest before using medications. Cryoballoon ablation involves a physician inserting a balloon, via a catheter, filled with liquid nitrogen to freeze the heart tissue that is causing the irregular heartbeat

Published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, the STOP AF FIRST trial looked at 203 patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation who had not previously been treated with medications over the course of a year. The patients were randomized to receive either cryoballoon catheter ablation or medications.

After 12 months, 75 percent of the ablation patients were free from atrial fibrillation without additional treatment, compared to just 45 percent of those who received medication, according to researchers.

"Previous studies have shown success in using ablation early in atrial fibrillation patients, but this is the first to study ablation as the initial therapy early in the AF disease process and the results may signal a shift in how we think about treatment," said Oussama Wazni, M.D., section head of electrophysiology and pacing at Cleveland Clinic and principal investigator of the study. "Earlier intervention with ablation may keep patients free from atrial fibrillation longer and prevent the disease from progressing into more persistent atrial fibrillation."

The study was sponsored by Medtronic, a maker of the cryoballoon ablation catheter.

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Editor's Note: The below story aired on April 20, 2020