Despite its name, a complete heart block has nothing to do with an obstruction of blood vessels. Also known as a third-degree heart block or atrioventricular heart block, a complete heart block is a malfunction of the heart's electrical system. During this life-threatening condition, electrical signals are unable to reach the heart's ventricles, which are responsible for pumping blood to the body. With a complete heart block, a person may suffer from cardiac arrest or even die. The condition requires immediate attention and can be treated through various methods, including medication and a pacemaker.
Symptoms of a complete heart block often include fatigue, fainting, chest pain, and shortness of breath. While a person of any age may suffer from a heart block, the condition is more common in older individuals. Degenerative muscle diseases and sarcoidosis, a condition in which lumps may develop on different parts of the body, particularly the lungs and lymph nodes, also put a person at risk for a heart block. In addition, if a person is on certain medications, especially beta blockers, he may be more apt to develop a heart block.
A complete heart block may be confirmed through different diagnostic tests. One of the most common tests is an electrocardiogram (EKG), which identifies and records electrical activities of a patient’s heart with the use of electrodes. A physician is able to read the electrical signals that are transmitted to a sheet of paper in order to determine the extent of damage to a patient's heart.
Treatment options for a complete heart block often include medications that alter the electrical signals in the heart. In addition to medicine, a person with a third-degree heart block will need a pacemaker. A tiny implantable device, a pacemaker is typically placed beneath the skin under the collarbone. The pacemaker connects to the heart through a vein and sends a slight electrical impulse to keep the heart beating properly.
A procedure called radiofrequency catheter ablation also may be used to treat third degree heart blocks. The technique uses radiofrequency waves to eradicate or disturb pieces of the electrical passageways responsible for irregular or rapid heartbeats. With this type of surgery, patients are typically able to leave the hospital within a day, compared to the more complicated open heart surgery, which involves a stay of at least a week.