An irregular heartbeat or atrial fibrillation (AFib) can significantly increase an individual’s risk of developing a stroke. During an AFib episode, the heart’s upper chambers, called atria, beat irregularly, and sometimes too fast, leading to the formation of blood clots. These clots can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. While prevention options for AFib associated stroke have long been limited to blood-thinning medications, the advent of an innovative procedure called watchman surgery offers a promising alternative.
First introduced in the US in 2009, the Watchman Procedure has been hailed as a game-changer in stroke prevention. But as a new procedure, many patients and medical professionals remain unaware of its benefits and how it works. This comprehensive guide aims to provide an overview of the Watchman Procedure, covering everything from its mechanism of action to its potential advantages and limitations.
The Watchman Procedure, also called left atrial appendage closure (LAAC), is a minimally invasive alternative to lifelong oral anticoagulant medications for patients with atrial fibrillation and a high risk of stroke. The procedure involves the implantation of a device within the left atrial appendage, the part of the atrium that is responsible for the majority of blood clot formation. The device effectively closes off the left atrial appendage, preventing blood clots from escaping. Over time, the patient’s own tissue grows around the implanted device, forming a permanent barrier within the left atrial appendage.
The Watchman Procedure can reduce the risk of stroke in patients with AFib by 92% and has been shown to be as effective as blood-thinning medication. Moreover, it eliminates the need for long-term anticoagulation therapy, which can be associated with a range of side effects, including excessive bleeding.
Though the Watchman Procedure poses certain risks, including bleeding and device-related complications, most patients do not experience any adverse effects. However, patients must be diligent about attending follow-up appointments and continuing to take medications to reduce the risk of clots in the left atrial appendage while healing.
While the Watchman Procedure is not suitable for every patient with AFib, it does offer an effective and safe alternative to oral anticoagulant medications. Candidates for the procedure include those who have a high risk of stroke, have difficulty tolerating blood-thinning medications, or refuse to take them. Patients with prior bleeding episodes or a high risk of bleeding are also candidates for this procedure.
Watchman Procedure patients require a general anesthesia and typically go home the next day. After the procedure, patients need to take anticoagulant medications for about six weeks while the heart tissue grows around the device. Afterward, most patients can stop blood thinners altogether.
The Watchman Procedure is an innovative and promising stroke prevention solution for those with AFib. Patients who have undergone the procedure report improved quality of life compared to long-term use of blood-thinning medications. It presents a viable alternative to taking medications for the rest of their lives while reducing the potential risk of serious bleeding complications. Though not appropriate for all patients with AFib, the Watchman Procedure offers hope for those who require an alternative method of stroke prevention and wish to reduce their risk associated with oral anticoagulant therapy.