Electrophysiological Testing of the Heart

Definition:
An electrophysiology (EP) study is a test that records the electrical activity and the electrical pathways of your heart. This test is used to help determine the cause of your heart rhythm disturbance and the best treatment for you. During the EP study, your doctor will safely reproduce your abnormal heart rhythm and then may give you different medications to see which one controls it best or to determine the best procedure or device to treat your heart rhythm.
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Sometimes doctors will recommend a treatment called ablation that can be done during EPS testing. Ablation uses electricity to kill the cells in the heart muscle that seem to cause the abnormal rhythm.

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Why Do you Need an Electrophysiology Study?
*To determine the cause of an abnormal heart rhythm.

*To locate the site of origin of an abnormal heart rhythm.

*To decide the best treatment for an abnormal heart rhythm.

Sometimes an EP study is conducted before implantable cardioverter/defibrillator (ICD) placement to determine which device is best and afterwards to monitor treatment success.

How do you prepare for the test?
*You will need to sign a consent form giving your doctor permission to perform this test. Tell your doctor if you have ever had an allergic reaction to lidocaine or the numbing medicine used at the dentist’s office. Also tell your doctor if you have ever had an allergic reaction to any heart medicines.

*Talk with your doctor ahead of time if you are taking insulin, or if you take aspirin, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, or other medicines that affect blood clotting. It may be necessary to stop or adjust the dose of these medicines before your test. Most people need to have a blood test done some time before the procedure to make sure they are not at high risk for bleeding complications.

*Your doctor may tell you not to eat anything for 12 or more hours before the test. A few people require an anti-anxiety medicine which occasionally causes nausea, and therefore some doctors prefer to have you come with an empty stomach. You might need to plan to spend the night in the hospital afterwards for recovery.

*Ask your doctor what medications you are allowed to take. Your doctor may ask you to stop certain medications one to five days before your EP study. If you have diabetes, ask your doctor how you should adjust your diabetes medications.

*Do not eat or drink anything after midnight the evening before the EP study. If you must take medications, take them only with a small sip of water.

*When you come to the hospital, wear comfortable clothes. You will change into a hospital gown for the procedure. Leave all jewelry or valuables at home.

*Your doctor will tell you if you can go home or must stay in the hospital after the procedure. If you are able to go home, bring a companion to drive you home.

What happens when the test is performed?
The test is done by a specialist using equipment and cameras in the cardiology department. You wear a hospital gown and lie on your back during the procedure. You have an IV (intravenous) line placed in a vein in case you need medicines or fluid during the procedure. Your heart is monitored during the test.

A catheter (a hollow, sterile tube that resembles spaghetti) is inserted through the skin into a blood vessel-typically in your groin, but possibly in the neck or arm. Before the catheter is placed, medicine through a small needle is used to numb the skin and the tissue underneath the skin in that area. The numbing medicine usually stings for a second. A needle on a syringe is then inserted, and some blood is drawn into the syringe, so that the doctor knows exactly where the blood vessel is located. One end of a wire is threaded into the blood vessel through the needle and the needle is pulled out, leaving the wire temporarily in place. This wire is several feet long, but only a small part of it is inside your blood vessel. The catheter can then be slipped over the outside end of the wire and moved forward along it like a long bead on a string, until it is in place with one end inside the blood vessel. The wire is pulled out of the catheter, leaving the catheter in place. Now the catheter can be moved easily forwards and backwards inside your blood vessel by the doctor, who holds the outside end of the catheter while using special controls to point the tip of the catheter in different directions. The doctor carefully moves the catheter to the large blood vessels in your chest and into the chambers of your heart.

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As your physician maneuvers the catheter, he or she watches a live video x-ray to know exactly where the catheter is. Instruments on the tip of the catheter allow it to sense electrical patterns from your heart and also to deliver small electrical shocks to the heart muscle (or a stronger electrical burn if you are having ablation). The electrical shocks, too small for you to feel, are used to “tickle” the heart muscle in different places to see if your abnormal rhythm is triggered by one sensitive area of your heart. If the rhythm changes, your doctor gives you small doses of different medicines through this catheter to see which ones work best to change the rhythm back to normal. In some cases the doctor may need to give your heart some additional mild shocks to get it back into a normal rhythm. Because this catheter is in place inside your heart and can give the shocks directly to the heart muscle, very small amounts of electricity are used.

After the catheter has been pulled out, a pressure bandage (basically a thick lump of gauze) is taped tightly to your groin to reduce bleeding. The test usually requires one to two hours to perform.

Many patients are able to feel palpitations (an irregular or fast heartbeat) from the rhythm changes. A few patients also experience shortness of breath or dizziness when they are not in a normal heart rhythm. Other than the brief sting of the numbing medicine and some soreness in your groin area afterward, you are not likely to feel any pain. For some people, the procedure provokes anxiety. Some patients also have a difficult time lying still for the time it takes to perform this test.
What Can you Expect During the Electrophysiology Study?
*You will lie on a bed and the nurse will start an intravenous (IV) line into your arm or hand. This is so you can receive medications and fluids during the electrophysiology study. You will be given a medication through your IV to relax you and make you drowsy, but it will not put you to sleep.

*The nurse will connect you to several monitors.
Your groin will be shaved and cleansed with an antiseptic solution. Sterile drapes are used to cover you, from your neck to your feet. A soft strap will be placed across your waist and arms to prevent your hands from coming in contact with the sterile field.

An electrophysiologist (a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal heart rhythms) will numb your groin with medication and then insert several catheters into the vein in your groin. Guided by the fluoroscopy machine, the catheters are threaded to your heart. The catheters sense the electrical activity in your heart and are used to evaluate your heart’s conduction system. The doctor will use a pacemaker to deliver the electrical impulses through one of the catheters to increase your heart rate.

You may feel your heart beating faster or stronger. Your nurses and doctor will want to know about any symptoms you are feeling. If your arrhythmia occurs, your doctor may give you medications through your IV to test their effectiveness in controlling it. If necessary, a small amount of energy may be delivered by the patches on your chest to bring back a normal heart rhythm. Based on the information collected during the study, the doctor may continue with an ablation procedure or device implant (pacemaker or ICD).

The EP study takes about two to four hours to perform. However, it can take longer if additional treatments such as catheter ablation are performed at the same time.

Risk Factors:
There are significant risks from this procedure. Most important, some abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia) can be life-threatening, and your doctors will purposefully cause you to go through a few extra episodes of arrhythmia during the testing. If your doctors recommend electrophysiologic testing, they feel that this is a risk worth taking because it will allow them to take better care of you in the future. Because you are right in the lab and attached to a monitor while you undergo the rhythm changes, it is easy for them to treat you should your arrhythmia occur and cause you symptoms.

Ablation has some additional risks, because it intentionally causes some scarring of a small part of the heart muscle. Complications are rare, but new rhythm changes can occur. A very rare complication occurs if the ablation instrument burns a hole through the heart muscle. This causes bleeding and may require immediate surgery.

There are some more minor risks from the test. Among them is bleeding from the place where the catheter was inserted. If bleeding occurs but the blood collects under the skin, it can form a large painful bruise called a hematoma. A few people are allergic to the medicines used in the procedure, and this can cause a rash or other symptoms.

Must you do anything special after the test is over?
You will need to lie flat for around six hours after this procedure. If you received anti-anxiety medicine through your IV during the procedure, you might feel sleepy at the end of the procedure and you might not remember much of the test. You should not drive or drink alcohol for the rest of the day.

Depending on what happened during your test, you might need to wear a heart monitor in the hospital for a few hours or overnight.

What Happens After the EP Study?
The doctor will remove the catheters from your groin and apply pressure to the site, to prevent bleeding. You will be on bed rest for about one to two hours.

An EP study can be frightening, but this test allows the doctor to decide the best treatment for you. In many cases, EP testing and the therapy following can greatly reduce the likelihood of spontaneous arrhythmia. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask your doctor or nurse.

How long is it before the result of the test is known?
Your doctors can tell you how the testing went as soon as it is over. If you had ablation done, the results will not be certain until you have had some time to see if your arrhythmia seems to be under control after the treatment.

Resources:
https://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/diagnostics/electrophysiological-testing-of-the-heart.shtml
http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/guide/diagnosing-electrophysiology

http://www.londoncardiac.ca/pages/bfs.html

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