Impulses generated in the sinoatrial (SA) node or in ectopic atrial loci are conducted to the ventricles through the electrically and anatomically complex atrioventricular (AV) node. As described in Chap. 239, the electrophysiologic properties of nodal tissue are distinct from atrial and ventricular myocardium. Cells located in the AV node sit at a relatively higher resting membrane potential than surrounding atrial and ventricular myocytes, exhibit spontaneous depolarization during phase 4 of the action potential, and have slower phase 0 depolarization (mediated by calcium influx in nodal tissue) than that seen in ventricular tissue (mediated by sodium influx).
Bradycardia may occur when conduction across the AV node is compromised, resulting in slow ventricular rates, with the possibility of attendant symptoms, including fatigue, syncope, and (if subsidiary pacemaker activity is insufficient) even death. It is important to recognize that in the setting of disturbed AV conduction, SA activation and atrial systole may occur at normal or even accelerated rates, while ventricular activation is either slowed or nonexistent. Transient AV conduction block is common in the young and is most likely the result of high vagal tone found in up to 10% of young adults. Acquired and persistent failure of AV conduction is decidedly rare in healthy adult populations, with an estimated incidence of 200 per million population per year. In the setting of myocardial ischemia, aging and fibrosis, or cardiac infiltrative diseases, however, persistent AV block is much more common.
As with symptomatic bradycardia arising from SA node dysfunction, permanent pacing is the only reliable therapy for symptoms arising from AV conduction block. Approximately 50% of the 160,000 permanent pacemakers implanted in the United States and 70–80% of those in Europe are implanted for disorders of AV conduction.
STRUCTURE AND PHYSIOLOGY OF THE AV NODE
The AV conduction axis is structurally complex, involving the atria and ventricles as well as the AV node. Unlike the SA node, the AV node is a subendocardial structure originating in the transitional zone, which is composed of aggregates of cells in the posterior-inferior right atrium. Superior, medial, and posterior transitional atrionodal bundles converge on the compact AV node. The compact AV node (~1 × 3 × 5 mm) is situated at the apex of the triangle of Koch, which is defined by the coronary sinus ostium posteriorly, the septal tricuspid valve annulus anteriorly, and the tendon of Todaro superiorly. The compact AV node continues as the penetrating AV bundle where it immediately traverses the central fibrous body and is in close proximity to the aortic, mitral, and tricuspid valve annuli; thus, it is subject to injury in the setting of valvular heart disease or its surgical treatment. The penetrating AV bundle continues through the annulus fibrosis and emerges along the ventricular septum adjacent to the membranous septum as the bundle of His. The right bundle branch (RBB) emerges from the distal AV bundle in ...