Many people who die of coronary occlusion die because of sudden ventricular fibrillation. The tendency to develop fibrillation is especially great after a large infarction, but fibrillation can sometimes occur after small occlusions as well. Indeed, some patients with chronic coronary insufficiency die suddenly from fibrillation without any acute infarction.
There are two especially dangerous periods after coronary infarction during which fibrillation is most likely to occur. The first is during the first 10 minutes after the infarction occurs. Then there is a short period of relative safety, followed by a secondary period of cardiac irritability beginning 1 hour or so later and lasting for another few hours. Fibrillation can also occur many days after the infarct but less likely so.
At least four factors enter into the tendency for the heart to fibrillate:
1. Acute loss of blood supply to the cardiac muscle causes rapid depletion of potassium from the ischemic musculature. This also increases the potassium concentration in the extracellular fluids surrounding the cardiac muscle fibers. Experiments in which potassium has been injected into the coronary system have demonstrated that an elevated extracellular potassium concentration increases the irritability of the cardiac musculature and, therefore, its likelihood of fibrillating.
2. Ischemia of the muscle causes an "injury current," which is described in Chapter 12 in relation to electrocardiograms in patients with acute myocardial infarction. That is, the ischemic musculature often cannot completely repolarize its membranes after a heart beat, so that the external surface of this muscle remains negative with respect to normal cardiac muscle membrane potential elsewhere in the heart. Therefore, electric current flows from this ischemic area of the heart to the normal area and can elicit abnormal impulses that can cause fibrillation.
3. Powerful sympathetic reflexes often develop after massive infarction, principally because the heart does not pump an adequate volume of blood into the arterial tree. The sympathetic stimulation also increases irritability of the cardiac muscle and thereby predisposes to fibrillation.
4. Cardiac muscle weakness caused by the myocardial infarction often causes the ventricle to dilate excessively. This increases the pathway length for impulse conduction in the heart and frequently causes abnormal conduction pathways all the way around the infarcted area of the cardiac muscle. Both of these effects predispose to development of circus movements because, as discussed in Chapter 13, excess prolongation of conduction pathways in the ventricles allows impulses to reenter muscle that is already recovering from refractoriness, thereby initiating a "circus movement" cycle of new excitation and causing the process to continue on and on.
Rupture of the Infarcted Area. During the first day or so after an acute infarct, there is little danger of rupture of the ischemic portion of the heart, but a few days later, the dead muscle fibers begin to degenerate, and the heart wall becomes stretched very thin. When this happens, the dead muscle bulges outward severely with each heart contraction, and this systolic stretch becomes greater and greater until finally the heart ruptures. In fact, one of the means used in assessing progress of severe myocardial infarction is to record by cardiac imaging (i.e., x-rays) whether the degree of systolic stretch is worsening.
When a ventricle does rupture, loss of blood into the pericardial space causes rapid development of cardiac tamponade—that is, compression of the heart from the outside by blood collecting in the pericardial cavity. Because of this compression of the heart, blood cannot flow into the right atrium, and the patient dies of suddenly decreased cardiac output.
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