Figure 13-14

Circus movement, showing annihilation of the impulse in the short pathway and continued propagation of the impulse in the long pathway.

Figure 13-15

A, Initiation of fibrillation in a heart when patches of refractory musculature are present. B, Continued propagation of fibrillatory impulses in the fibrillating ventricle.

portions. This state of events is depicted in heart A by many lighter patches, which represent excitable cardiac muscle, and dark patches, which represent still refractory muscle. Now, continuing 60-cycle stimuli from the electrode can cause impulses to travel only in certain directions through the heart but not in all directions. Thus, in heart A, certain impulses travel for short distances, until they reach refractory areas of the heart, and then are blocked. But other impulses pass between the refractory areas and continue to travel in the excitable areas. Then, several events transpire in rapid succession, all occurring simultaneously and eventuating in a state of fibrillation.

First, block of the impulses in some directions but successful transmission in other directions creates one of the necessary conditions for a re-entrant signal to develop—that is, transmission of some of the depolarization waves around the heart in only some directions but not other directions.

Second, the rapid stimulation of the heart causes two changes in the cardiac muscle itself, both of which predispose to circus movement: (1) The velocity of conduction through the heart muscle decreases, which allows a longer time interval for the impulses to travel around the heart. (2) The refractory period of the muscle is shortened, allowing re-entry of the impulse into previously excited heart muscle within a much shorter time than normally.

Third, one of the most important features of fibrillation is the division of impulses, as demonstrated in heart A. When a depolarization wave reaches a refractory area in the heart, it travels to both sides around the refractory area. Thus, a single impulse becomes two impulses. Then, when each of these reaches another refractory area, it, too, divides to form two more impulses. In this way, many new wave fronts are continually being formed in the heart by progressive chain reactions until, finally, there are many small depolarization waves traveling in many directions at the same time. Furthermore, this irregular pattern of impulse travel causes many circuitous routes for the impulses to travel, greatly lengthening the conductive pathway, which is one of the conditions that sustains the fibrillation. It also results in a continual irregular pattern of patchy refractory areas in the heart.

One can readily see when a vicious circle has been initiated: More and more impulses are formed; these cause more and more patches of refractory muscle, and the refractory patches cause more and more division of the impulses. Therefore, any time a single area of cardiac muscle comes out of refractoriness, an impulse is close at hand to re-enter the area.

Heart B in Figure 13-15 demonstrates the final state that develops in fibrillation. Here one can see many impulses traveling in all directions, some dividing and increasing the number of impulses, whereas others are blocked by refractory areas. In fact, a single electric shock during this vulnerable period frequently can lead to an odd pattern of impulses spreading multidirection-ally around refractory areas of muscle, which will lead to fibrillation.

Electrocardiogram in Ventricular Fibrillation

In ventricular fibrillation, the electrocardiogram is bizarre (Figure 13-16) and ordinarily shows no ten-

Figure 13-16

Figure 13-16

Ventricular fibrillation (lead II)

dency toward a regular rhythm of any type. During the first few seconds of ventricular fibrillation, relatively large masses of muscle contract simultaneously, and this causes coarse, irregular waves in the electrocardiogram. After another few seconds, the coarse contractions of the ventricles disappear, and the electrocardiogram changes into a new pattern of low-voltage, very irregular waves. Thus, no repetitive electrocardiographic pattern can be ascribed to ventricular fibrillation. Instead, the ventricular muscle contracts at as many as 30 to 50 small patches of muscle at a time, and electrocardio-graphic potentials change constantly and spasmodically because the electrical currents in the heart flow first in one direction and then in another and seldom repeat any specific cycle.

The voltages of the waves in the electrocardiogram in ventricular fibrillation are usually about 0.5 millivolt when ventricular fibrillation first begins, but they decay rapidly so that after 20 to 30 seconds, they are usually only 0.2 to 0.3 millivolt. Minute voltages of 0.1 millivolt or less may be recorded for 10 minutes or longer after ventricular fibrillation begins. As already pointed out, because no pumping of blood occurs during ventricular fibrillation, this state is lethal unless stopped by some heroic therapy, such as immediate electroshock through the heart, as explained in the next section.

Electroshock Defibrillation of the Ventricles

Although a moderate alternating-current voltage applied directly to the ventricles almost invariably throws the ventricles into fibrillation, a strong highvoltage alternating electrical current passed through the ventricles for a fraction of a second can stop fibrillation by throwing all the ventricular muscle into refractoriness simultaneously. This is accomplished by passing intense current through large electrodes placed on two sides of the heart. The current penetrates most of the fibers of the ventricles at the same time, thus stimulating essentially all parts of the ventricles simultaneously and causing them all to become refractory. All action potentials stop, and the heart remains quiescent for 3 to 5 seconds, after which it begins to beat again, usually with the sinus node or some other part of the heart becoming the pacemaker. However, the same re-entrant focus that had originally thrown the ventricles into fibrillation often is still present, in which case fibrillation may begin again immediately.

When electrodes are applied directly to the two sides of the heart, fibrillation can usually be stopped using 110 volts of 60-cycle alternating current applied for 0.1

second or 1000 volts of direct current applied for a few thousandths of a second. When applied through two electrodes on the chest wall, as shown in Figure 13-17, the usual procedure is to charge a large electrical capacitor up to several thousand volts and then to cause the capacitor to discharge for a few thousandths of a second through the electrodes and through the heart. In our laboratory, the heart of a single anesthetized dog was defibrillated 130 times through the chest wall, and the animal lived thereafter in perfectly normal condition.

Hand Pumping of the Heart (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) as an Aid to Defibrillation

Unless defibrillated within 1 minute after fibrillation begins, the heart is usually too weak to be revived by defibrillation because of the lack of nutrition from coronary blood flow. However, it is still possible to revive the heart by preliminarily pumping the heart by hand (intermittent hand squeezing) and then defibrillating the heart later. In this way, small quantities of blood are delivered into the aorta and a renewed coronary blood supply develops. Then, after a few minutes of hand pumping, electrical defibrillation often becomes possible. Indeed, fibrillating hearts have been pumped by hand for as long as 90 minutes followed by successful defibrillation.

A technique for pumping the heart without opening the chest consists of intermittent thrusts of pressure on the chest wall along with artificial respiration. This, plus defibrillation, is called cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

Lack of blood flow to the brain for more than 5 to 8 minutes usually causes permanent mental impairment or even destruction of brain tissue. Even if the heart is revived, the person may die from the effects of brain damage or may live with permanent mental impairment.

Several thousand volts for a few milliseconds

Several thousand volts for a few milliseconds

Figure 13-17

Application of electrical current to the chest to stop ventricular fibrillation.

Atrial Fibrillation

Remember that except for the conducting pathway through the A-V bundle, the atrial muscle mass is separated from the ventricular muscle mass by fibrous tissue. Therefore, ventricular fibrillation often occurs without atrial fibrillation. Likewise, fibrillation often occurs in the atria without ventricular fibrillation (shown to the right in Figure 13-19).

The mechanism of atrial fibrillation is identical to that of ventricular fibrillation, except that the process occurs only in the atrial muscle mass instead of the ventricular mass. A frequent cause of atrial fibrillation is atrial enlargement resulting from heart valve lesions that prevent the atria from emptying adequately into the ventricles, or from ventricular failure with excess damming of blood in the atria. The dilated atrial walls provide ideal conditions of a long conductive pathway as well as slow conduction, both of which predispose to atrial fibrillation.

Pumping Characteristics of the Atria During Atrial Fibrillation.

For the same reasons that the ventricles will not pump blood during ventricular fibrillation, neither do the atria pump blood in atrial fibrillation. Therefore, the atria become useless as primer pumps for the ventricles. Even so, blood flows passively through the atria into the ventricles, and the efficiency of ventricular pumping is decreased only 20 to 30 per cent. Therefore, in contrast to the lethality of ventricular fibrillation, a person can live for months or even years with atrial fibrillation, although at reduced efficiency of overall heart pumping.

Electrocardiogram in Atrial Fibrillation. Figure 13-18 shows the electrocardiogram during atrial fibrillation. Numerous small depolarization waves spread in all directions through the atria during atrial fibrillation. Because the waves are weak and many of them are of opposite polarity at any given time, they usually almost completely electrically neutralize one another. Therefore, in the electrocardiogram, one can see either no P waves from the atria or only a fine, high-frequency, very low voltage wavy record. Conversely, the QRS-T complexes are normal unless there is some pathology of the ventricles, but their timing is irregular, as explained next.

Irregularity of Ventricular Rhythm During Atrial Fibrillation.

When the atria are fibrillating, impulses arrive from the atrial muscle at the A-V node rapidly but also irregularly. Because the A-V node will not pass a second impulse for about 0.35 second after a previous one, at least 0.35 second must elapse between one ventricular contraction and the next. Then an additional but

Figure 13-18

Figure 13-18

Atrial fibrillation (lead I). The waves that can be seen are ventricular QRS and T waves.

Figure 13-19

Figure 13-19

Pathways of impulses in atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation.

variable interval of 0 to 0.6 second occurs before one of the irregular atrial fibrillatory impulses happens to arrive at the A-V node. Thus, the interval between successive ventricular contractions varies from a minimum of about 0.35 second to a maximum of about 0.95 second, causing a very irregular heartbeat. In fact, this irregularity, demonstrated by the variable spacing of the heartbeats in the electrocardiogram of Figure 13-18, is one of the clinical findings used to diagnose the condition. Also, because of the rapid rate of the fibrillatory impulses in the atria, the ventricle is driven at a fast heart rate, usually between 125 and 150 beats per minute.

Electroshock Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation. In the same manner that ventricular fibrillation can be converted back to a normal rhythm by electroshock, so too can atrial fibrillation be converted by electroshock. The procedure is essentially the same as for ventricular fibrillation conversion—passage of a single strong electric shock through the heart, which throws the entire heart into refractoriness for a few seconds; a normal rhythm often follows if the heart is capable of this.

Atrial Flutter

Atrial flutter is another condition caused by a circus movement in the atria. It is different from atrial fibrillation, in that the electrical signal travels as a single large wave always in one direction around and around the atrial muscle mass, as shown to the left in Figure 13-19. Atrial flutter causes a rapid rate of contraction of the atria, usually between 200 and 350 beats per minute. However, because one side of the atria is contracting while the other side is relaxing, the amount of blood pumped by the atria is slight. Furthermore, the signals reach the A-V node too rapidly for all of them to be passed into the ventricles, because the refractory periods of the A-V node and A-V bundle are too long to pass more than a fraction of the atrial signals. Therefore, there are usually two to three beats of the atria for every single beat of the ventricles.

Figure 13-20 shows a typical electrocardiogram in atrial flutter. The P waves are strong because of contraction of semicoordinate masses of muscle. However, note in the record that a QRS-T complex follows an atrial P wave only once for every two to three beats of the atria, giving a 2:1 or 3:1 rhythm.

Figure 13-20

Figure 13-20

Atrial flutter—2:1 and 3:1 atrial to ventricle rhythm (lead I)

Cardiac Arrest

A final serious abnormality of the cardiac rhythmicity-conduction system is cardiac arrest. This results from cessation of all electrical control signals in the heart. That is, no spontaneous rhythm remains.

Cardiac arrest is especially likely to occur during deep anesthesia, when many patients develop severe hypoxia because of inadequate respiration. The hypoxia prevents the muscle fibers and conductive fibers from maintaining normal electrolyte concentration differentials across their membranes, and their excitability may be so affected that the automatic rhythmicity disappears.

In most instances of cardiac arrest from anesthesia, prolonged cardiopulmonary resuscitation (many minutes or even hours) is quite successful in reestablishing a normal heart rhythm. In some patients, severe myocardial disease can cause permanent or semipermanent cardiac arrest, which can cause death. To treat the condition, rhythmical electrical impulses from an implanted electronic cardiac pacemaker have been used successfully to keep patients alive for months to years.

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