Electrode vest gives hope to heart rhythm patients

  • 29 March 2013
  • From the section Health
Media captionThe vest has 250 electrodes

Doctors are using special vests to precisely diagnose abnormal heart rhythms, in the first UK tests of their kind.

Cardiologists from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in west London say the vests have enabled them to successfully treat more patients.

They hope the technology could eventually help more people suffering from heart palpitations.

The Arrythmia Alliance described the tests as a "fantastic development".

The work is in its early stages - doctors have used the vests on 40 patients so far.

However, they are impressed with the precision that each vest can give them. The results have been sent to a medical journal.

The panels contain about 250 electrodes, to determine exactly where abnormal electrical activity in the heart is causing problems.

Computer images are then generated to produce an "electrical map" of the patient's heart.

Using this technology - known as the ECVUE system - means that a subsequent procedure called ablation - in which a catheter is placed in the heart through veins in the leg and then used to burn away the problematic area - stands a better chance of success.

Dr Prapa Kanagaratnam, the consultant cardiologist leading the work, said: "It was very appealing right from the start to be able to get measurements of the heart's electrical activity with that degree of precision, without having to initially put wires into the heart.

"It was obvious to us straight away there was a group of patients we could apply the technology to effectively.

"Many patients suffer palpitations at night or when they are resting and this can be impossible to treat by current techniques, as it is difficult to recreate a relaxing environment in the operating theatre.

"It's been very satisfying to use the ECVUE system and see the results over the last couple of years."

Each vest costs about £1,000 - the doctors say this compares well with conventional diagnosis techniques, especially given the benefit of treating patients they were sometimes not able to previously help.

It is thought there are about two million people with heart rhythm problems in the UK, although many of these will be undiagnosed. Arrhythmia is an umbrella term which covers various conditions.

'Huge shock'

Lana Morgan, 29, from Watford, is among the patients who have benefited from trying the vest at Imperial.

Lana, a former air stewardess, was retraining as an interior designer last year when episodes of breathlessness and a pounding heart began to feel serious.

She said: "I was working late on a project one day and I was quite stressed. I had to run for my train home and I felt quite unwell. I went home and phoned my doctor.

"I'd been brushing it off, but it got to the point when I couldn't ignore it any longer.

"My heart would beat quickly and then slow down, or beat strongly and then go faint. At the time I would feel as though I was going to pass out.

"It was only when I had a 24-hour monitor that it showed up that my heart wasn't beating correctly. They kept me in hospital for a week and that was a huge shock."

Unlike some patients, Lana's extra heartbeats tended to occur during exertion - but doctors struggled to trigger the palpitations and therefore pinpoint the exact area of the problem until they used the electrode vest.

She said: "They've told me that without this they couldn't have corrected my heart. But now I'm fixed and can get on with my life."

Trudie Lobban, the founder and chief executive of the Arrhythmia Alliance, a heart rhythm charity, said: "Anything that can help diagnose these patients will ultimately help save lives.

"These arrythmias are like electrical faults in your car - it can take ages to identify which wire is faulty.

"So being able to then successfully do the soldering work with the ablation is fantastic.

"It means people can return to work and live normal lives."

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