Esophageal fistula formation is one of the most feared complications of radiofrequency catheter ablation. This procedure and its many variations, such as the “maze,” are becoming the mainstream treatment for atrial fibrillation owing to limitations of antiarrhythmic drugs. The incidence of this complication rate has been reported to be from 0.01% to 1%.


To delineate the importance of using the en bloc Letulle method of dissection for identifying esophageal fistulas for cases with a history of radiofrequency catheter ablation.


Six autopsy cases with a history of radiofrequency catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation were selected from 1736 autopsies performed between 2009 and 2020.


The initial presenting symptoms included neurologic symptoms, chest pains, epigastric discomfort, and sepsis. Transesophageal echocardiogram of 4 cases showed no evidence of thrombus or vegetation, however, 2 cases had evidence of atrial esophageal fistula. The autopsy findings included 5 atrial esophageal fistulas and 1 esophagopericardial fistula. Atrial esophageal fistulas were small and could be detected without difficulty when the en bloc Letulle technique was used and would have been easily missed by the Virchow method. The immediate causes of the deaths were myocardial ischemia, septic emboli to brain and heart, hypovolemic shock secondary to exsanguination, stroke, and coagulopathy.


To date, this is the largest collection of autopsy cases showing esophageal fistula associated with prior radiofrequency catheter ablation. The Letulle dissection method is preferable in this setting.

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Author notes

The authors have no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.