CHAPEL HILL – In late June, doctors at UNC’s Center for Heart and Vascular care became the first in the state to treat patients with a high risk of stroke due to atrial fibrillation with a new, non-invasive procedure.

Atrial fibrillation, which affects between five to six million Americans, is a condition where the heart’s upper chambers quiver instead of beat, leading to blood clots which can then cause stroke. Dr. Paul Mounsey, director of cardiac electrophysiology at UNC, says atrial fibrillation is the most common identified cause of stroke in the United States.

“Typically, to prevent stroke, you use blood thinning medication, but a quarter of patients can’t take blood thinning medication because they’ve got a bleeding risk or a fall risk,” Mounsey says.

In an area of the heart known as the left atrial appendage, 90 percent of clots accumulate in patients with atrial fibrillation. Mounsey and another UNC doctor, Dr. Eugene Chung, closed off the appendage with a small lasso that was inserted through the vein.

By comparison, individuals who have atrial fibrillation are five times more likely to have a stroke if they have not had this procedure.

“This is something that cardiac surgeons have been doing for probably 30 years, but through a fairly large incision through the chest wall, which is obviously painful and is much more of an operation,” Mounsey says.

The two patients treated by Mounsey and Chung returned home two days after the procedure, compared to the many days of hospitalization that Mounsey says can accompany the older method of closing off the left atrial appendage.

“You’re breathing with some of the breathing muscles damaged and that makes it quite an unpleasant recovery,” Mounsey says.

This same procedure is available in hospitals in Virginia and Georgia.