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Dawn's picture

Transcutaneous Pacemaker: Failure to Capture and False QRS Artifact

 When using a transcutaneous pacemaker, it is important to remember that the pacing stimulus can cause an artifact on the ECG.  This artifact is sometimes confused for a QRS complex.  Also, the pacing of the chest wall muscles can be misinterpreted as a pulse.  A “real” QRS complex will have a T wave. 

In this strip, the underlying sinus bradycardia is uninterrupted across the strip.  The rate is very slow – in the 30’s. 

At the beginning of the strip, there are four pacing stimuli, with artifact.  The pacemaker is in fixed mode.  It does not sense the normal QRS that occurs after the second pacing stimulus.  There is failure to sense AND failure to capture.  Apparently, the pacing is stopped, then the pacer is set to “demand” mode.  The pacemaker is sensing the patient’s native beats, but not pacing.  It is likely that the rate and/or the MA, or milliamps, need to be increased to achieve pacing with capture.

 This is a good ECG to illustrate the artifact that is possible with transcutaneous pacing, and remind your students not to assume the patient is being paced.  The patient’s clinical signs (skin perfusion, blood pressure, mentation) should be used to determine whether the rate is adequate.


Dawn's picture

ECG Basics: Pacemaker Failure to Capture

This ECG is taken from a patient with an implanted pacemaker who was experiencing near-syncope.  She was taken to the hospital by EMS, where the pacemaker was adjusted to obtain ventricular capture.  This ECG did not have a Lead II rhythm strip, so the 12-lead ECG is being presented.  The P waves have been marked with a "P", pacemaker spikes marked with an arrow, and the QRS complexes marked with a "J" because they are junctional.  Because we can see 12 leads, or viewpoints, the morphology of the P waves and QRS complexes changes each time the machine switches to a new lead.

The underlying rhythm is sinus, with nearly regular P waves occuring at a rate of about 72 beats per minute.  The QRS complexes are also regular, but they are dissociated from the P waves.  Because the rate is near or just under 40 bpm, and the QRS complexes are narrow, this represents a slow junctional rhythm.  Because both atrial and ventricular rhythms are regular, but not associated with each other, an interpretation of complete heart block (third-degree AV block) can be made.  This explains why the patient had a pacemaker implanted.

The pacer spikes, for the most part, track the P waves, which is how this pacemaker is programmed.  They are not followed by a paced QRS complex, however.  This is failure to capture.  The second and fourth P waves did not stimulate a pacer spike because of their proximity to the T wave of the junctional beat.  The mA (energy setting) was adjusted in the Emergency Dept., and the pacemaker did not require repositioning.  The patient regained a reliable paced rhythm.

This section of the ECG Guru is meant to be for your basic students.  Pacemakers now have become very complex, with many options and variable settings.  So complex, that I would not feel comfortable getting into any more detail than I have here (although visitors to the site are welcome to).  It is important that, if you deal with patients in an emergency setting, you do not tell the patient that "something is wrong with their pacemaker" until it has been evaluated by a qualified person who can electronically interrogate the device.  It can be very difficult to determine from an ECG how a pacemaker is programmed, and how it should be reacting.  Since this patient had symptoms related to the bradycardia, and since pacemaker spikes occurred free of any refractory period and did not produce QRS complexes, it is safe to say there needs to be an adjustment.

In an emergency, with serious symptoms present, a transcutaneous or transvenous temporary pacemaker can be used.  Medications such as Atropine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are also used, depending upon the type of AV block and the resources available.


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