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Antiarrhythmic agent

Antiarrhythmic agents are a group of pharmaceuticals that are used to suppress fast rhythms of the heart (cardiac arrhythmias), such as atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, ventricular tachycardia, and ventricular fibrillation.

While the use of antiarrhythmic agents to suppress atrial arrhythmias (atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter) is still in practice, it is unclear whether suppression of atrial arrhythmias will prolong life.[1][2]

In the past, it was believed that following myocardial infarction (heart attack), suppression of ventricular arrhythmias would prolong life. However large clinical trials found that suppression of these arrhythmias would paradoxically increase mortality,[3][4] which may happen due to the proarrhythmic effect these drugs may have (CAST trial).

In individuals with atrial fibrillation, antiarrhythmics are still used to suppress arrhythmias. This is often done to relieve the symptoms that may be associated with the loss of the atrial component to ventricular filling (atrial kick) that is due to atrial fibrillation or flutter.

In individuals with ventricular arrhythmias, antiarrhythmic agents are often still in use to suppress arrhythmias. In this case, the patient may have frequent arrhythmic events or be at high risk for ventricular arrhythmias. Antiarrhythmic agents may be considered the first-line therapy in the prevention of sudden death in certain forms of structural heart disease, and failure of these agents to suppress arrhythmias may lead to implantation of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).

The use of antiarrhythmic agents in this population may be in conjunction with an ICD. In this case, the ICD is used to prevent sudden death due to ventricular fibrillation, while the antiarrhythmic agent(s) are used to suppress ventricular tachyarrhythmias so that the ICD doesn't shock the patient frequently.

  Many attempts have been made to classify antiarrhythmic agents. The problem arises from the fact that many of the antiarrhythmic agents have multiple modes of action, making any classification imprecise.

Additional recommended knowledge


Vaughan Williams antiarrhythmic classification

The Vaughan Williams classification, introduced in 1970,[5] is one of the most widely used classification schemes for antiarrhythmic agents. This scheme classifies a drug based on the primary mechanism of its antiarrhythmic effect. However, its dependence on primary mechanism is one of the limitations of the VW classification, since many antiarrhythmic agents have multiple action mechanisms. Amiodarone, for example, has effects consistent with all of the first four classes. Another limitation is the lack of consideration within the VW classification system for the effects of drug metabolites. Procainamide—a class Ia agent whose metabolite N-acetyl procainamide (NAPA) has a class III action—is one such example. A historical limitation was that drugs such as digoxin and adenosine – important antiarrhythmic agents – had no place at all in the VW classification system. This has since been rectified by the inclusion of class V.[citation needed]

There are five main classes in the Vaughan Williams classification of antiarrhythmic agents:

  • Class I agents interfere with the sodium (Na+) channel.
  • Class II agents are anti-sympathetic nervous system agents. Most agents in this class are beta blockers.
  • Class III agents affect potassium (K+) efflux.
  • Class IV agents affect calcium channels and the [AV node]].
  • Class V agents work by other or unknown mechanisms.

Overview table

Class Examples Mechanism Clinical uses [6]
Ia (Na+) channel block (intermediate association/dissociation)
  • Ventricular arrhythmias
  • prevention of paroxysmal recurrent atrial fibrillation (triggered by vagal overactivity)
Ib (Na+) channel block (fast association/dissociation)
  • treatment and prevention during and immediately after myocardial infarction
    • ventricular tachycardia
    • atrial fibrillation
Ic (Na+) channel block (slow association/dissociation)
  • prevents paroxysmal atrial fibrillation
  • treats recurrent tachyarrhythmias of abnormal conduction system.
II beta blocking
  • decrease myocardial infarction mortality
  • prevent recurrence of tachyarrhythmias
III K+ channel block
  • In Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome
  • (sotalol:) ventricular tachycardias and atrial fibrillation
IV Ca2+ channel block
  • prevent recurrence of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia
  • reduce ventricular rate in patents with atrial fibrillation

Class I agents

The class I antiarrhythmic agents interfere with the (Na+) channel. Class I agents are grouped by what effect they have on the Na+ channel, and what effect they have on cardiac action potentials. Class 1 agents are called Membrane Stabizing agents. The 'stabilizing' is the word used to describe the decrease of excitogenicity of the plasma membrane which is brought about by these agents. Also noteworthy is that a few class 2 agents like propranolol also have a membrane stabilizing effect.

Class Ia agents

  Class Ia agents block the fast sodium channel. Blocking this channel depresses the phase 0 depolarization (reduces Vmax), which prolongs the action potential duration by slowing conduction. Agents in this class also cause decreased conductivity and increased refractoriness.

Indications for Class Ia agents are supraventricular tachycardia, ventricular tachycardia, symptomatic ventricular premature beats, and prevention of ventricular fibrillation.

Procainamide can be used in the treatment of atrial fibrillation in the setting of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and in the treatment of wide complex hemodynamically stable tachycardias.

While procainamide and quinidine may be used in the conversion of atrial fibrillation to normal sinus rhythm, they should only be used in conjunction with an AV node blocking agent (ie: digoxin, verapamil, or a beta blocker), because procainamide and quinidine can increase the conduction through the AV node and may cause 1:1 conduction of atrial fibrillation, causing an increase in the ventricular rate.

Class Ia agents include quinidine, procainamide and disopyramide.

Class Ib agents

  Class Ib antiarrhythmic agents are sodium channel blockers. Class Ib agents have fast onset and offset kinetics, meaning that they have little or no effect at slower heart rates, and more effects at faster heart rates. Class Ib agents shorten the action potential duration and reduce refractoriness. These agents will decrease Vmax in partially depolarized cells with fast response action potentials. They either do not change the action potential duration, or they may decrease the action potential duration. Class Ib drugs tend to be much more specific for voltage gated Na channels than Ia. Lidocaine in particular is highly frequency dependent, in that it has more activity with increasing heart rates. This is because lidocaine selectively blocks Na channels in their open and inactive states and has little binding capability in the resting state.

Class Ib agents are indicated for the treatment of ventricular tachycardia and symptomatic premature ventricular beats, and prevention of ventricular fibrillation.

Class Ib agents include lidocaine, mexiletine, tocainide, and phenytoin.

Class Ic agents

  Class Ic antiarrhythmic agents markedly depress the phase 0 depolarization (decreasing Vmax). They decrease conductivity, but have a minimal effect on the action potential duration. Of the sodium channel blocking antiarrhythmic agents (the class I antiarrhythmic agents), the class Ic agents have the most potent sodium channel blocking effects.

Class Ic agents are indicated for life-threatening ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, and for the treatment of refractory supraventricular tachycardia (ie: atrial fibrillation). These agents are potentially pro-arrhythmic, especially in settings of structural heart disease (e.g. post-myocardial infarction), and are contraindicated in such settings.

Class Ic agents include encainide, flecainide, moricizine, and propafenone.

Class II agents

Class II agents are conventional beta blockers. They act by selectively blocking the effects of catecholamines at the β1-adrenergic receptors, thereby decreasing sympathetic activity on the heart. These agents are particularly useful in the treatment of supraventricular tachycardias. They decrease conduction through the AV node.

Class II agents include esmolol, propranolol, and metoprolol.

Class III agents


Class III agents predominantly block the potassium channels, thereby prolonging repolarization.[7] Since these agents do not affect the sodium channel, conduction velocity is not decreased. The prolongation of the action potential duration and refractory period, combined with the maintenance of normal conduction velocity, prevent re-entrant arrhythmias. (The re-entrant rhythm is less likely to interact with tissue that has become refractory).

Class III antiarrhythmic agents exhibit reverse use dependent prolongation of the action potential duration (Reverse use-dependence). This means that the refractoriness of the ventricular myocyte increases at lower heart rates. This increases the susceptibility of the myocardium to early after-depolarizations (EADs) at low heart rates. Antiarrhythmic agents that exhibit reverse use-dependence are more efficacious at preventing a tachyarrhythmia than converting someone into normal sinus rhythm. Because of the reverse use-dependence of class III agents, at low heart rates class III antiarrhythmic agents may paradoxically be more arrhythmogenic.

Amiodarone is indicated for the treatment of refractory VT or VF, particularly in the setting of acute ischemia. Amiodarone is also safe to use in individuals with cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation, to maintain normal sinus rhythm. Amiodarone prolongation of the action potential is uniform over a wide range of heart rates so this drug does not have reverse use-dependent action.7 In contrast, dofetilide blocks only the rapid K channels; this means that at higher heart rates, when there is increased involvement of the slow K channels, dofetilide has less of an action potential-prolonging effect. 7

Sotalol is indicated for the treatment of atrial or ventricular tachyarrhythmias, and AV re-entrant arrhythmias. Ibutilide is the only antiarrhythmic agent currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for acute conversion of atrial fibrillation to sinus rhythm.

Class III agents include amiodarone, azimilide, bretylium, clofilium, dofetilide, tedisamil, ibutilide, sematilide, and sotalol.

Class IV agents

Class IV agents are slow calcium channel blockers. They decrease conduction through the AV node, and shorten phase two (the plateau) of the cardiac action potential. They thus reduce the contractility of the heart, so may be inappropriate in heart failure. However, in contrast to beta blockers, they allow the body to retain adrenergic control of heart rate and contractility.

Class IV agents include verapamil and diltiazem.

Class V agents

Class V agents include digoxin and adenosine. Digoxin increases vagal activity via its central action on the central nervous system, thus decreasing the conduction of electrical impulses through the AV node


The Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial[8] was a medical study that demonstrated that some class 1 anti-arrhythemic drugs were not helpful to people suffering from ventricular premature depolarization. Specifically, for populations of recent heart attack survivors, the study observed lower mortality in a control population than in populations treated with encainide, flecainide or moricizine (all class 1c drugs).


Mnemonic for Class I-IV agents: SoBe PoCa (SOBE as in South Beach or the drink, POCA as in Polka)

Also - remembering that of all anti-arrhythmics "some block potassium channels" can help you: Class I "Some" = S = Sodium Class II "Block" = B =Beta blockers Class III "Potassium" = Potassium channel blockers Class IV "Channels" = C =Calcium channel blockers

Sodium channel blockers, Beta blockers, Potassium channel blockers, Calcium channel blockers

See also

  • Action potential
    • Cardiac action potential
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Plasma membrane Stabilization


  1. ^ Wyse D, Waldo A, DiMarco J, Domanski M, Rosenberg Y, Schron E, Kellen J, Greene H, Mickel M, Dalquist J, Corley S (2002). "A comparison of rate control and rhythm control in patients with atrial fibrillation.". N Engl J Med 347 (23): 1825-33. PMID 12466506.
  2. ^ Nichol G, McAlister F, Pham B, Laupacis A, Shea B, Green M, Tang A, Wells G (2002). "Meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials of the effectiveness of antiarrhythmic agents at promoting sinus rhythm in patients with atrial fibrillation.". Heart 87 (6): 535-43. PMID 12010934.
  3. ^ (1989) "Preliminary report: effect of encainide and flecainide on mortality in a randomized trial of arrhythmia suppression after myocardial infarction. The Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST) Investigators.". N Engl J Med 321 (6): 406-12. PMID 2473403.
  4. ^ (1992) "Effect of the antiarrhythmic agent moricizine on survival after myocardial infarction. The Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial II Investigators.". N Engl J Med 327 (4): 227-33. PMID 1377359.
  5. ^ Vaughan Williams EM. "Classification of anti-arrhythmic drugs." In: Symposium on Cardiac Arrhythmias, Sandfte E, Flensted-Jensen E, Olesen KH eds. Sweden, AB ASTRA, Södertälje, 1970;449-472.
  6. ^ Unless else specified in boxes, then ref is: Rang, H. P. (2003). Pharmacology. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 0-443-07145-4. 
  7. ^ Lenz TL, Hilleman DE, Department of Cardiology, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. Dofetilide, a New Class III Antiarrhythmic Agent. Pharmacotherapy 20(7):776-786, 2000. (Medline abstract)
  8. ^ Entry on Clinical

7.) Katzung, Bertram G. Basic and Clinical Pharmacology, 10th edition. New York: McGraw Hill Medical, 2007 pp.228

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Antiarrhythmic_agent". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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