Refractory Period of the Heart

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ventricular muscle, unlike skeletal muscle, is incapable of any significant degree of summation of contractions, and this is a very good thing. Imagine that cardiac muscle were able to undergo a prolonged tetanic contraction. During this period, no ventricular filling could occur since filling can occur only when the ventricular muscle is relaxed, and the heart would therefore cease to function as a pump. The inability of the heart to generate tetanic contractions is the result of the long absolute refractory period of cardiac muscle, defined as the period during and following an action potential when an excitable membrane cannot be re-excited. The absolute refractory period of skeletal muscle is much shorter (1 to 2 ms) than the duration of contraction (20 to 100 ms), and a second contraction can therefore be elicited before the first is over (summation of contractions). In contrast, because of the long plateau in the cardiac muscle action potential, the absolute refractory period of cardiac muscle lasts almost as long as the contraction (250 ms), and the muscle cannot be re-excited in time to produce summation.