Cardioversion to Treat Irregular Heart Rhythms

Cardioversion is a treatment used to restore a normal heart rhythm for patients who have an irregular rhythm, also called an arrhythmia. Cardioversion is primarily used to treat atrial fibrillation, or AFib, which is the most common heart rhythm issue. It can also be used to treat other irregular heart rhythms, such as atrial flutter, atrial tachycardia and ventricular tachycardia.

What is cardioversion?

There are two types of cardioversion procedures: chemical cardioversion and electrical cardioversion. Both are typically performed as outpatient procedures at a hospital.

In a chemical cardioversion, your doctor monitors your heart while administering an IV medication to restore normal rhythm. There are several different types of medications that may be used depending on your specific heart rhythm issue. 

In electrical cardioversion, your doctor will use a minor electrical shock through paddles applied to your chest or back to shock your heart back into a normal rhythm. 

What to expect in a cardioversion procedure

Your doctor or another member of your medical team will give you specific instruction on how to prepare for your cardioversion procedure. You should not drive or operative heavy machinery following your procedure, so be sure you have someone to drive you home.

Don't eat or drink anything eight hours prior to your procedure, and ask your doctor whether or not you should take your usual medications the day of the procedure. Leave all jewelry at home, and avoid using any lotions, creams, or powders on your chest or back for 24 hours prior to the procedure.

For an electrical cardioversion, you will be given a sedative through an IV to make you sleepy. Your doctor will use two paddles to give you a brief shock that lasts about one second. Because of the sedative, you likely will not feel the shock at all, and you won't feel any pain during the procedure.

Some patients may require more than one shock before their heartbeat returns to normal. The procedure takes around 30 minutes, and most patients don't remember the shock. You'll be monitored for an hour or so following the procedure, but most patients are able to go home later that day.

Risks of cardioversion

As with any medical procedure, there are some risks associated with cardioversion.

  • Blood clots - If you already have blood clots caused by your irregular heart rhythm, the cardioversion procedure could dislodge them and allow them to move through your veins. To reduce this risk, your doctor may do an ultrasound to check for blood clots around your heart or prescribe a medication to help reduce the risk of clots prior to your procedure. 
  • Stroke - If a blood clot breaks loose and travels to your brain, it could cause a stroke. 
  • Skin irritation - The skin on your chest or back may be irritated where the paddles were used. If so, ask your doctor about a cream that can be applied to help with the irritation. 
  • Failed cardioversion - In some cases, the cardioversion procedure does not work to restore normal heart rhythm. If that occurs, your doctor will talk to you about other options, including medications or the use of a pacemaker to control your heart rhythm.

If you have atrial fibrillation or another abnormal heart rhythm and wonder if cardioversion might help, contact the Oklahoma Heart Hospital today to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians.