Heart Block

A heart block is a kind of arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat. It means there is a block in the flow of natural electricity through the heart. Specifically, the electrical signals can’t move from the upper chambers of the heart to the lower chambers of the heart.

When this blockage happens, the two chambers of the heart aren’t beating together as they should. A child’s heart can start beating too slowly (called bradycardia), which can be dangerous. Heart block can be a congenital condition, or it can develop later — often because of another heart condition or surgery.

At Lurie Children’s, we can diagnose heart block as young as in the womb through our Fetal Cardiology Program. We also see it in older children. We’ll work with your family to create a treatment plan.

What Are Symptoms of Heart Block?

Some heart block is so mild that it doesn’t cause symptoms. This kind of heart block, called first degree, usually doesn’t even require treatment.

More severe heart block, called third degree or complete heart block, can cause symptoms such as:

  • Trouble feeding in infants
  • Fatigue and lack of energy in children and young adults
  • Fainting (called syncope)
  • Lack of endurance when exercising

Second degree heart block is in between mild and severe. It may or may not have symptoms and need treatment.

How We Diagnose & Treat Heart Block

Electrophysiologists (EPs) are the doctors who diagnose and treat arrhythmias like heart block.

In pregnancy, we diagnose heart block with a fetal echocardiogram. We work to support the baby until delivery. The most common reason for a fetal heart block is if the mother has an autoimmune disorder like lupus or Sjögren’s (SHOW-grins).

In older children, we can often diagnose with an electrocardiogram, or EKG. This is a simple procedure that gathers electrical information about the heart.

Sometimes the electrical problem is intermittent. It may not show up on an EKG if the heart is behaving normally during the test. This is why we have children wear a Holter monitor, which monitors their heart throughout the day.

Sometimes we can reverse a heart block if it’s related to medications or another temporary situation.

For non-reversible heart block, the most effective treatment is to implant a pacemaker. In our EP program, we wait until children are big enough before we consider doing this procedure. We only use this treatment if the heart block is life-threatening or causing severe symptoms.

Why Choose Lurie Children’s for Heart Block & Other Arrhythmias?

We have a large electrophysiology (EP) department, which is fully supported by the Heart Center at Lurie Children’s. We are known for:

  • Leading heart care: Top-ranked for pediatric cardiology and heart surgery by U.S.News & World Report, we treat children with even the most complex heart rhythm issues.
  • Diagnostic expertise: Our EPs have the most advanced training in interpreting Holter monitor tests. They know how to pick up subtle rhythm abnormalities that others with less experience can miss.
  • Collaboration between heart surgeons and EPs: Our EPs work with surgeons implanting devices in smaller children. They test different locations on the heart to find the optimal position, and direct the surgeon there. This makes the device work better for the child.
  • 24/7 support for children with pacemakers: We have a nurse who coordinates all care management, and we maintain constant communication with devices. Our team is available any time, day or night.

Can Adults Get Heart Block?

For those who are born with heart block, it’s a congenital heart disease condition. But heart block can also be an acquired condition. As a person gets older, the wires that connect the upper and lower parts of the heart can become diseased.

Certain kinds of cancer or infections can also cause heart block.

People with adult congenital heart disease (ACHD) also sometimes develop heart block later in life. If you were born with a heart condition and had treatment as a child, it’s important to see an ACHD cardiologist. Through our ACHD Program, we monitor all patients for rhythm disturbances throughout their lives.

Heart Center Family Resource Guide

To help prepare families for their care with Lurie Children's Heart Center, we have compiled a list of resources about treatment and recovery. Learn how to get ready for an inpatient stay or outpatient visit, and read about our support services for patients and families.

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