Cardiologists have shown that a new freezing technique to treat patients with irregular heartbeats is quicker and more effective than conventional therapy.

The condition, atrial fibrillation (AF), affects the upper two chambers of the heart causing a fast and irregular heartbeat. This can cause symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, angina and breathlessness. Patients also have an increased risk of stroke because of the blood clots which can form as a result of irregular blood flow through the heart’s chambers.

Instead of burning away the tiny sections heart tissue that may be triggering the irregular heartbeat, doctors at Barts Health are using a freezing technique.

Research by Barts Health Cardiology Department using 237 patients undergoing treatment for AF showed that freezing away problematic tissue is quicker and more effective than the conventional burning technique.

Via a blood vessel in the patient’s leg, cardiologists thread a device called a cryoballoon – a long wire with a balloon attached to the end – into the vein in the heart which is causing the problem. Once in position, the surgeon activates the balloon to freeze a perfect circle of tissue inside the vein, causing a cylindrical scar.

Professor Richard Schilling said: “The cryoballoon is a fantastic step forward in the treatment of AF. Not only is it quicker and easier to perform than conventional ablation, it is at least as safe and has a higher success rate.

“The fact that it is faster also means that we can perform more of these procedures in a day and shorten our waiting lists, improving access for patients.

“I can see a situation evolving in the future where this treatment could be performed as a day case procedure by less specialised doctors in smaller centres, really making this procedure easily accessible to all."