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Third degree AV block

Third degree AV block
Classification & external resources
ICD-10 I44.2
ICD-9 426.0
DiseasesDB 10477
eMedicine emerg/235 

Third degree AV block, also known as complete heart block, is a defect of the electrical system of the heart, in which the impulse generated in the atria (typically the SA node on top of the right atrium) does not propagate to the ventricles.



Because the impulse is blocked, an accessory pacemaker below the level of the block will typically activate the ventricles. This is known as an escape rhythm. Since this accessory pacemaker activates independently of the impulse generated at the SA node, two independent rhythms can be noted on the electrocardiogram (EKG).

  • One will activate the atria and create the P waves, typically with a regular P to P interval.
  • The second will activate the ventricles and produce the QRS complex, typically with a regular R to R interval. The PR interval will be variable, as the hallmark of complete heart block is no apparent relationship between P waves and QRS complexes.

Patients with third degree AV block typically experience a lower overall measured heart rate (as low as 28 beats per minute during sleep), low blood pressure, and poor circulation. In some cases, exercising may be difficult, as the heart cannot react quickly enough to sudden changes in demand or sustain the higher heart rates required for sustained activity.


Many conditions can cause third degree heart block, but the most common cause is coronary ischemia. Progressive degeneration of the electrical conduction system of the heart can lead to third degree heart block. This may be preceded by first degree AV block, second degree AV block, bundle branch block, or bifascicular block. In addition, acute myocardial infarction may present with third degree AV block.

An inferior wall myocardial infarction may cause damage to the AV node, causing third degree heart block. In this case, the damage is usually transitory, and the AV node may recover. Studies have shown that third degree heart block in the setting of an inferior wall myocardial infarction typically resolves within 2 weeks. The escape rhythm typically originates in the AV junction, producing a narrow complex escape rhythm.

An anterior wall myocardial infarction may damage the distal conduction system of the heart, causing third degree heart block. This is typically extensive, permanent damage to the conduction system, necessitating a permanent pacemaker to be placed. The escape rhythm typically originates in the ventricles, producing a wide complex escape rhythm.

Third degree heart block may also be congenital and has been linked to the presence of lupus in the mother. It is thought that maternal antibodies may cross the placenta and attack the heart tissue during gestation. The cause of congenital third degree heart block in many patients is unknown. Studies suggest that the prevalence of congenital third degree heart block is between 1 in 15,000 and 1 in 22,000 live births.


Third degree AV block can be treated by use of a dual-chamber artificial pacemaker. This type of device typically listens for a pulse from the SA node and sends a pulse to the AV node at an appropriate interval, essentially completing the connection between the two nodes. Pacemakers in this role are usually programmed to enforce a minimum heart rate and to record instances of atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation, two common secondary conditions that can accompany third degree AV block.

Treatment may also include medicines to control blood pressure and atrial fibrillation, as well as lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce risk factors associated with heart attack and stroke.

Treatment in emergency situations is atropine and an external pacer.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Third_degree_AV_block". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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