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Your Healthy Family: The electrical properties of the human heart

Posted at 4:01 PM, Jan 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-06 18:02:18-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — In this Your Healthy Family, with the good news that Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin is now off a ventilator and seems to be getting better every day, this whole incident got me thinking about the electrical nature of the human heart and exactly how it works. 

Dr. Bradley Mikaelian, a cardiologist with UCHealth, sat down with me and explained that while not as complex as the human brain, the heart is a close second.

“The heart is a big muscle. It's a big muscle that pumps blood. It has a blood supply that feeds it. It's a mechanical structure, but it also has an electrical system.”

Mikaelian explained to me that cardiologists essentially fall into two categories: plumbers and electricians. “We often joke with our patients but it's essentially true. Your heart has a plumbing system and you need a plumber cardiologist. And then there's also an electrical system and there's electrical cardiologists.”

So, you could say Dr. Mikaelian falls into the electrician category. He specializes in cardiac electrophysiology with an emphasis on cardiac arrhythmia management.

Dr. Mikaelian says, “It's that electrical system of the heart that actually stimulates the heart muscle to contract and generate each heartbeat.”

But where does the electricity come from?

Dr. Mikaelian explains, “The heart has ions or (you could say) channels in the heart muscle cells that shuttle sodium and potassium and calcium and chloride ions. These ions move in and out of heart muscle cells, and that's what creates currents that create a little depolarization in a heart muscle cell. You stack a few million cells together, and that's enough to generate an electrical impulse that actually does something. Then, all those ions move back the other way, and the heart has some very sophisticated mechanisms that do that with each heartbeat, 100,000 times a day - every day of our life - for all the years we're alive. It's amazing.”

When the heart stops beating for any reason, getting it beating again is just one piece of a puzzle doctors have to watch closely, says Dr. Mikaelian.

“If we see that someone's in ventricular fibrillation, and we can restore that rhythm back to normal … there is not only concern about the heart, but obviously also about the brain tissue when the brain has gone without oxygen - or with a limited supply of oxygen -- for that time period.” 

As he continues his recovery, it’s safe to say Damar Hamlin has many across the nation, including this Colorado Springs cardiologist pulling for him.

“I want to say from everybody here that our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Hamlin and his family. He's making some progress and we're definitely wishing them all well.” 

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