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CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE :: Heart

Anatomy and Function of the Electrical System

The heart's electrical system:

The heart is, in the simplest terms, a pump made up of muscle tissue. Like all pumps, the heart requires a source of energy in order to function. The heart's pumping action comes from a built-in, electrical, conduction system.

Anatomy of the heart, view of the electrical system
Click Image to Enlarge

How does the heart beat?

An electrical stimulus is generated by the sinus node (also called the sinoatrial node, or SA node), which is a small mass of specialized tissue located in the right atrium (right upper chamber) of the heart. The sinus node generates an electrical stimulus periodically (60-190 times per minute, depending on the age of the child and his/her activity level). This electrical stimulus travels down through the conduction pathways (similar to the way electricity flows through power lines from the power plant to your house) and causes the heart's lower chambers to contract and pump out blood. The right and left atria (the two upper chambers of the heart) are stimulated first and contract a short period of time before the right and left ventricles (the two lower chambers of the heart).

The electrical impulse travels from the sinus node to the atrioventricular (AV) node, where impulses are slowed down for a very short period, then continues down the conduction pathway via the bundle of His into the ventricles. The bundle of His divides into right and left pathways to provide electrical stimulation to both ventricles.

Normally, as the electrical impulse moves through the heart, the heart contracts about 60 to 100 times a minute. Each contraction of the ventricles represents one heartbeat. The atria contract a fraction of a second before the ventricles so their blood empties into the ventricles before the ventricles contract.

Under some conditions, almost all heart tissue is capable of starting a heartbeat, or becoming the "pacemaker," just like the sinus node. An arrhythmia may occur when:

  • the heart's natural pacemaker (the sinus node) develops an abnormal rate or rhythm.
  • the normal conduction pathway is interrupted.
  • another part of the heart takes over as pacemaker.

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Online Resources of Cardiovascular Disorders

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It is important to remember the health information found on this website is for reference only not intended to replace the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
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