Cardiac muscle normally contracts in a predictable, regular pattern, which allows it to generate enough force to eject blood into the circulation. However, in ventricular fibrillation the heart muscle "quivers" in a rapid, irregular, and unsynchronized manner. The disordered and feeble contractions are not strong, or coordinated enough to eject blood from the heart. As a result, cardiac output drops and the body quickly goes into cardiogenic shock.
There are numerous causes of ventricular fibrillation. All of them involve the abnormal formation, or propagation of electrical current in the heart. The most common cause of abnormal electrical activity occurs in diseased heart tissue that has lost its normal architecture. For example, muscle damage from heart attacks or disorganized heart structures seen in cardiomyopathy can serve as abnormal areas of electrical impulse formation; these "irritated" areas can predispose patients to develop ventricular fibrillation.
Other causes include electrolyte abnormalities. For example, hyperkalemia (ie: an elevated blood potassium level) can depolarize heart muscle cells and make them more likely to "fire" an action potential. In general, any electrolyte disturbance that makes the resting potential of the cardiac muscle fiber more positive (ie: more depolarized) can result in abnormal electrical impulse formation; these abnormal impulses can degenerate into ventricular fibrillation.
Ventricular fibrillation is a highly fatal rhythm because the heart fails to pump blood, and more specifically oxygen, to the bodies' organs. As a result, every organ system in the body, including the heart becomes ischemic and dies.
The rapid decline in blood flow to the brain causes people to lose consciousness. If treatment is not sought quickly the patient will have a "global" stroke resulting in brain death.
Ventricular fibrillation is diagnosed by looking at an electrocardiogram (ECG). The ECG will show disorganized and chaotic electrical activity.
ECG of ventricular fibrillation
Treatment of ventricular fibrillation is with immediate un-synchronized electrical cardioversion (ie: the paddle "thingies" they use to shock someone's heart). The goal of shocking the heart with electricity is to reset (ie: repolarize) all the cardiac muscle fibers at the same time. From there the sinus node should theoretically take over, and reset the heart back into a normal rhythm.
If a patient survives their first episode of ventricular fibrillation they often have a cardiac defibrillator implanted. Implantable cardiac defibrillators shock the heart when they detect an abnormal rhythm such as ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia.
Ventricular fibrillation is a rapidly fatal, disorganized, and inefficient "quivering" of heart muscle. It causes cardiogenic shock and organ death if left untreated. It is most commonly due to underlying heart disease seen in people with coronary artery disease, previous heart attacks, and cardiomyopathies, although other causes exist. Treatment is with immediate electrical cardioversion (ie: "shocking" the heart).
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