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INTRODUCTION

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CASE STUDY

A 69-year-old retired teacher presents with a 1-month history of palpitations, intermittent shortness of breath, and fatigue. She has a history of hypertension. An ECG shows atrial fibrillation with a ventricular response of 122 beats/min (bpm) and signs of left ventricular hypertrophy. She is anticoagulated with warfarin and started on sustained-release metoprolol, 50 mg/d. After 7 days, her rhythm reverts to normal sinus rhythm spontaneously. However, over the ensuing month, she continues to have intermittent palpitations and fatigue. Continuous ECG recording over a 48-hour period documents paroxysms of atrial fibrillation with heart rates of 88–114 bpm. An echocardiogram shows a left ventricular ejection fraction of 38% with no localized wall motion abnormality. At this stage, would you initiate treatment with an antiarrhythmic drug to maintain normal sinus rhythm, and if so, what drug would you choose?

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Cardiac arrhythmias are a common problem in clinical practice, occurring in up to 25% of patients treated with digitalis, 50% of anesthetized patients, and over 80% of patients with acute myocardial infarction. Arrhythmias may require treatment because rhythms that are too rapid, too slow, or asynchronous can reduce cardiac output. Some arrhythmias can precipitate more serious or even lethal rhythm disturbances; for example, early premature ventricular depolarizations can precipitate ventricular fibrillation. In such patients, antiarrhythmic drugs may be lifesaving. On the other hand, the hazards of antiarrhythmic drugs—and in particular the fact that they can precipitate lethal arrhythmias in some patients—has led to a reevaluation of their relative risks and benefits. In general, treatment of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic arrhythmias should be avoided for this reason.

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Arrhythmias can be treated with the drugs discussed in this chapter and with nonpharmacologic therapies such as pacemakers, cardioversion, catheter ablation, and surgery. This chapter describes the pharmacology of drugs that suppress arrhythmias by a direct action on the cardiac cell membrane. Other modes of therapy are discussed briefly (see Box: The Nonpharmacologic Therapy of Cardiac Arrhythmias, later in the chapter).

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ELECTROPHYSIOLOGY OF NORMAL CARDIAC RHYTHM

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The electrical impulse that triggers a normal cardiac contraction originates at regular intervals in the sinoatrial (SA) node (Figure 14–1), usually at a frequency of 60–100 bpm. This impulse spreads rapidly through the atria and enters the atrioventricular (AV) node, which is normally the only conduction pathway between the atria and ventricles. Conduction through the AV node is slow, requiring about 0.15 seconds. (This delay provides time for atrial contraction to propel blood into the ventricles.) The impulse then propagates over the His-Purkinje system and invades all parts of the ventricles, beginning with the endocardial surface near the apex and ending with the epicardial surface at the base of the heart. Ventricular activation is complete in less than 0.1 seconds; therefore, contraction of all of the ventricular muscle is normally synchronous and hemodynamically effective.

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FIGURE 14–1

Schematic representation of the heart and normal cardiac ...

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