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Pharmacology Of Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Discover the fascinating world of antiarrhythmic drugs and unravel the complexities of their pharmacology to gain insights into their mechanism of action and potential benefits for managing cardiac rhythm disorders.

USMLE Guide: Pharmacology of Antiarrhythmic Drugs


This guide aims to provide an overview of the pharmacology of antiarrhythmic drugs, which are used in the treatment of various cardiac arrhythmias. Understanding the mechanisms of action, indications, and side effects of these drugs is crucial for medical students preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

I. Classification of Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Antiarrhythmic drugs are classified into four main classes based on their mechanisms of action. It is important to note that this classification system may vary slightly depending on the source:

  1. Class I: Sodium channel blockers
  2. Class II: Beta-adrenergic blockers
  3. Class III: Potassium channel blockers
  4. Class IV: calcium channel blockers

II. Class I Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Mechanism of Action

Class I drugs primarily act by blocking sodium channels, which reduces the rate of depolarization in cardiac cells. This blockade leads to a decrease in conduction velocity and refractoriness of cardiac tissues.


Class I drugs are further divided into three subclasses:

  • Class IA: Moderate sodium channel blockade and intermediate duration of action (e.g., quinidine, procainamide)
  • Class IB: Weak sodium channel blockade and short duration of action (e.g., lidocaine, mexiletine)
  • Class IC: Strong sodium channel blockade and slow recovery from block (e.g., flecainide, propafenone)

Clinical Indications

  • Class IA drugs are effective against supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. They are also used for rate control in atrial fibrillation.
  • Class IB drugs are mainly used for ventricular arrhythmias, especially in the acute setting.
  • Class IC drugs are generally reserved for refractory ventricular arrhythmias and should be used with caution due to proarrhythmic effects.

Side Effects

  • Class IA drugs may cause QT prolongation, torsades de pointes, anticholinergic effects, and cinchonism (quinidine).
  • Class IB drugs have a relatively low incidence of adverse effects, but high doses can cause CNS toxicity (lidocaine).

III. Class II Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Mechanism of Action

Class II drugs primarily block beta-adrenergic receptors, reducing sympathetic tone and decreasing the automaticity and conduction velocity of cardiac tissues.

Clinical Indications

Class II drugs are commonly used for the treatment of supraventricular tachyarrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation/flutter and atrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia (AVNRT).

Side Effects

  • Common side effects include bradycardia, hypotension, fatigue, and bronchospasm (especially in patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
  • Non-selective beta blockers may worsen peripheral vascular disease or exacerbate symptoms in patients with heart failure or asthma.

IV. Class III Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Mechanism of Action

Class III drugs primarily block potassium channels, prolonging the repolarization phase of cardiac action potentials and increasing the refractory period.

Clinical Indications

Class III drugs are effective in the treatment of both supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation/flutter and ventricular tachycardia.

Side Effects

  • Prolonged QT interval and torsades de pointes are the most significant adverse effects associated with Class III drugs.
  • Amiodarone, a commonly used Class III drug, can cause thyroid dysfunction, pulmonary toxicity, hepatotoxicity, and ocular effects.

V. Class IV Antiarrhythmic Drugs

Mechanism of Action

Class IV drugs primarily block calcium channels, reducing the inward calcium current during phase 2 of the cardiac action potential.

Clinical Indications

Class IV drugs are commonly used for the treatment of supraventricular arrhythmias, particularly atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter.

Side Effects

  • Side effects include bradycardia, hypotension, constipation, and exacerbation of heart failure.
  • Verapamil should be used with caution in patients with impaired left ventricular function, as it may worsen heart failure.


Understanding the classification, mechanisms of action, clinical indications, and side effects of antiarrhythmic drugs is essential for medical students preparing for the USMLE. This guide provides a concise overview of the pharmacology of these drugs, helping students consolidate their knowledge and prepare for related questions on the exam.

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