Online publication only
Premature ventricular contractions
(PVCs) are extra, abnormal heartbeats that begin in one of the heart's
two lower pumping chambers, or ventricles. They are also called
ventricular premature beats (VPBs) and extrasystoles. These extra
beats disrupt the regular heart rhythm, which normally starts in
the upper right chamber, or atrium. As a result, one may feel a
flip-flop or skipped beat in the chest – what is commonly
called a palpitation. PVCs are very common and occur in most people
from time to time. While they may occur in healthy persons of any
age, they are more frequent in the elderly and are more commonly
found in men. If patients are otherwise healthy, they may need no
specifics treatment for PVCs. However, if there is heart disease,
or the palpitations negatively affect quality of life, treatment
should be given.
Causes of PVCs include:
· certain medicines such as Digoxin, which increases heart
· cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic or dilated
· myocardial contusion
· myocardial infarction
· hypercapnia (CO2 poisoning)
· mitral valve prolapse
· smoking tobacco
· certain drugs of abuse, such as cocaine
· some antidepressants
· decreased levels of magnesium and potassium in blood
· increased levels of calcium in blood
· thyroid problems
· chemical (electrolyte) problems in the blood
· increased levels of adrenaline
· lack of sleep/exhaustion
In Western medicine, PVCs are usually diagnosed after the patient
has described "skipped beats," pauses in the heartbeat,
or palpitations. Typically, the palpitations felt by PVC patients
are very irregular and less sustained than those in patients with
other types of arrhythmia. They are likely to have "flip-flopping"
sensations, as if the heart is flipping over or pounding due to
a pause after the premature contraction, and then a powerful contraction
after the pause. They might also feel a "fluttering" in
the chest or a pounding in the neck, but these two types of palpitations
are uncommon in PVC patients.
A physical examination is routinely conducted after a full history
has been taken. This is useful in determining any possible heart
defects that might be causing the palpitations. Most cases of premature
ventricular contraction have a mitral valve prolapse, which can
be determined through the physical examination. The next step in
diagnosis is a 12-lead ECG, a standard type of electrocardiogram,
which is usually performed in the doctor's office over a short time.
However, this is often nonconclusive in diagnosis, because it is
not very sensitive and there is a small chance of a PVC occurring
in that short period. Using a Holter monitor, a device that can
continuously recording heart rhythm over 24 hours, is a far better
method for diagnosis.
When looking at an electrocardiograph, PVCs are easily spotted,
and therefore a definitive diagnosis can be made. The QRS and T
waves look very different from normal readings. The spacing between
the PVC and the preceding QRS wave is much shorter than usual, and
the time between the PVC and the proceeding QRS much longer. However,
the time between the preceding and proceeding QRS waves stays the
same as normal due to the compensatory pause. PVCs can be distinguished
from premature atrial contractions, because the compensatory pause
is longer following PVCs.
There are five different patterns of PVCs. Bigeminy is when one
PVC occurs after every normal beat, in an alternating pattern. Trigeminy
is when one PVC occurs after every two normal beats; and quadrigeminy,
after every three normal beats. A unifocal PVC is when the depolarization
is triggered from the one site in the ventricle. In this case, the
peaks on the ECG look the same. Multifocal PVCs arise when more
than one site in the ventricles cause depolarization. In that case,
each peak on the ECG will have a different shape. If three or more
PVCs occur in a row, it indicates ventricular tachycardia, a more
serious form of arrhythmia.
Western Medical Treatment
In the Western medical approach, isolated PVCs with benign characteristics
require no treatment. In healthy individuals, PVCs can often be
resolved with by restoring the balance of magnesium, calcium, and
potassium within the body. The most effective treatment is the elimination
of triggers (particularly ceasing the abuse of substances such as
caffeine and illegal drugs.) Depending on the underlying cause of
the PVCs, typical Western medical treatments include:
· beta blockers
· calcium channel blockers
· magnesium supplements (such as magnesium citrate, magnesium
orate, or Maalox)
· potassium supplements
Radio-frequency catheter ablation treatment
· Frequently stressed individuals should consider therapy
or joining a support group.
· Heart attacks can increase the likelihood of PVCs. Therefore,
exercise and a healthy diet will decrease PVCs by reducing the
risk of heart attacks.
In the setting of existing cardiac disease,
however, PVCs must be watched carefully, since they may cause a
form of ventricular tachycardia.
Chinese Medical Treatment
In Chinese medicine, PVCs correspond to the traditional internal
medicine disease categories of xin ji, heart palpitations, and zheng
chong, fearful throbbing. Their treatment based on pattern discrimination
is discussed in virtually all Chinese internal medicine manuals.
However, since most patients present with a combination of these
textbook patterns, often the research literature presents a more
accurate picture of their Chinese medical treatment. For instance,
on pages 710–711 of issue 11, 2008, of Shi
Yong Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of
Practical Chinese Medicine & Pharmacology), is an article
by Wang Tian-peng et al., titled "Clinical Observations on
the Treatment of Premature Ventricular Beats with the Combined Use
of Chinese & Western Medicine Medicinals." A summary of
this article is presented below.
Altogether, 60 cases of PVC were enrolled in this two-wing comparison
study. These cases were randomly divided into two groups of 30 cases
each – a treatment group who received both Chinese herbal
medicine and Western medicine, and a comparison group who only received
the Western medicine. In the treatment group, there were 18 males
and 12 females aged 40 to 75 years. In the comparison group, there
were 19 males and 11 females aged 38 to 76 years. All these patients
met the diagnostic criteria for heart palpitations and a pattern
yin vacuity fire effulgence as found in Zhong
Yi Bing Zheng Zhen Duan Liao Xiao Biao Zhun (Criteria
for Chinese Medical Disease & Pattern Diagnosis and Treatment
Efficacy), published by Nanjing University Press in 1995.
Patients with myocardial infarction, heart failure, thyroid disease,
drug poisoning, electrolyte imbalances, bradycardic arrhythmias,
conduction blockage disorders, and supraventricular arrhythmias
were excluded from this study. All patients in this study were diagnosed
by 24-hour Holter monitor. There were no significant statistical
differences in these two groups for the purposes of this study.
All participants in the treatment group were orally administered
the following version of Ning Xin Fang (Calm the Heart Formula):
Xi Yang Shen (Radix Panacis Quinquefolii),
Mai Men Dong (Tuber Ophiopogonis), 15g
mix-fried Huang Qi (Radix Astragali), 10g
Ku Shen (Radix Sophorae), 15g
Huang Lian (Rhizoma Coptidis), 8g
Gua Lou Pi (Pericarpium Trichosanthis), 10g
Dan Shen (Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae), 30g
One packet of these medicinals was decocted
in 300 milliliters of water and administered per day in two divided
doses of 150 milliliters each. In addition, all members of the treatment
group were administered 150 milligrams T.I.D. of propafenone (Rhythmol).
Members of the comparison group only received the same dose of propafenone.
"Marked effect" means that the occurrence of PVCs on ECG
decreased 90% or more. "Some effect" means that it decreased
by 50% or more. "No effect" means that it decreased less
than 50%, did not decrease at all, or got worse. The following table
shows the outcomes of the two groups based on ECG.
Therefore, the combined use of propafenone
and Ning Xin Fang was more effective overall than the use of propafenone
Patients' response to therapy was also judged by a point system
having to do with the reduction in their clinical symptoms. The
severity of heart palpitations, shortness of breath, lack of strength,
insomnia, profuse dreams, dizziness, tinnitus, impaired memory,
tidal heat, dry mouth, tongue, and pulse signs were assigned a number
from 0 to 6. Zero means the sign or symptom was absent. Two means
that it was slight. Four means that it was moderate, and six that
it was severe. Patients' symptoms were calculated before and after
treatment. The number after treatment was subtracted from the number
before treatment. That was then divided by the number before treatment,
and the result was multiplied by 100. "Clinical cure"
means that the symptoms decreased by 90% or more. "Marked effect"
means that they decreased by 70% to 90%. "Some effect"
means that they decreased 30% to 70%, and "no effect"
means that they decreased by less than 30%. The following table
shows these outcomes of the two groups. (As the reader will see,
no one was judged clinically cured.)
These results basically parallel the ECG results
above. They show that, from a clinical point of view, the combined
protocol of integrated Chinese-Western medicine was superior in
overall therapeutic effect to the Western drug treatment alone.
According to the Chinese authors of this article, heart palpitations
and fearful throbbing mostly present as a mixture of vacuity and
repletion. The vacuities are of heart qi, blood, yin, and/or yang.
Hence the heart spirit loses its nourishment. The repletions are
mostly blood stasis, phlegm rheum, and fire depression harassing
and causing chaos to the heart spirit. Clinically, one most commonly
sees the pattern of yin vacuity fire effulgence, in which case one
should boost the qi and nourish yin, clear heat and calm the heart.
Within Ning Xin Fang, Xi Yang Shen and Mai Men Dong boost the qi
and nourish yin, clear fire and engender fluids. Ku Shen and Huang
Lian clear the heart and quiet the spirit. Gua Lou Pi transforms
phlegm, loosens the chest, and disinhibits the qi. Dan Shen quickens
the blood and dispels stasis, nourishes the blood, quiets the spirit,
and calms the heart. When all these medicinals are used together,
they support the righteous and dispel evils. Further, according
to pharmacologic research, Xi Yang Shen, Huang Qi, Ku Shen, Huang
Lian, and Gua Lou Pi all have antiarrhythmic effects.
Although the Chinese authors say the treatment principles for most
cases of PVCs should be to boost the qi and nourish yin, clear heat
and quiet the spirit, in fact, the formula that they use also treats
phlegm dampness and blood stasis. Therefore, it treats all the major
factors in heart palpitations and fearful throbbing. This is an
example of real-life clinical practice as opposed to beginner's
textbook treatment based on (single) pattern discrimination.
Copyright © Blue Poppy Press, 2009.
All rights reserved.