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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Ventricular Depolarization and the Mean Electrical Axis


Sequence of Ventricular Depolarization


generation of QRS complex

The mean electrical axis is the average of all the instantaneous mean electrical vectors occurring sequentially during depolarization of the ventricles. The figure to the right depicts the sequence of depolarization within the ventricles. The septum and free left and right ventricular walls are shown. In this model, each of the four vectors is depicted as originating from the top of the interventricular septum just below the AV node. The electrode placement represents lead II.  During ventricular activation, impulses are first conducted down the left and right bundle branches on either side the septum. This causes the septum to depolarize from left-to-right as depicted by vector 1 (Panel A). This vector is heading slightly away from the positive electrode (to the right of a line perpendicular to the lead axis) and therefore will record a small negative deflection (Q wave of the QRS).  About 20 milliseconds later, the mean electrical vector points downward toward the apex (vector 2), and is heading toward the positive electrode (Panel B). This produces a very tall positive deflection (R wave of the QRS).  After another 20 milliseconds, the mean vector is pointing toward the left arm and anterior chest as the free wall of the ventricle depolarizes from the endocardial to the epicardial surface (vector 3, Panel C). This vector records a small positive voltage in lead II. Finally, the last regions to depolarize results in vector 4 (Panel D), which produces a slight negative deflection (S wave) of the QRS.



animated generation of QRS complex

The shape of the QRS complex is different for each of the limb leads because each of the leads will "see" the sequence of depolarization vectors from a different perspective (see axial reference system). The animated figure to the right shows how the QRS complex appears for leads aVF and aVL. The positive electrodes for these two leads are at +90°  and -30°, respectively. In this illustration, the mean electrical axis (see below) is about +45°. Note that aVF shows a large net positive QRS. There is no Q wave because septal depolarization is not directed away from the lead (see ECG rules). The R wave is very positive because early ventricular depolarization is largely directed toward this lead. The S wave is also present because the terminal depolarization of the upper wall of the left ventricle is directed away from aVF. In contrast, aVL shows an initial Q wave (septal depolarization is directed away from the lead) followed by a moderately positive R wave.


The Mean Electrical Axis


ECG electrical mean axis

The mean electrical axis represents the sum of all of the mean electrical vectors occurring during ventricular depolarization. The mean electrical axis is depicted by a green arrow in the figure to the right, which shows the same instantaneous mean vectors as in the figure at the top of this page but superimposed upon the axial reference system. In this example, the mean electrical axis is approximately +40°. The mean electrical axis for the heart normally lies between -30 and +90°. Less than -30° is termed a left axis deviation and greater than +90° is termed a right axis deviation. Axis deviations can be caused by increased cardiac muscle mass (e.g., left ventricular hypertrophy), changes in the sequence of ventricular activation (e.g., conduction defects), or because of ventricular regions being incapable of being activated (e.g., infarcted tissue). 


electrocardiogram limb lead tracings

To determine the mean electrical axis from the ECG, find the lead axis that has a biphasic (equally positive and negative QRS deflections - i.e., no net deflection), then find the lead axis that is perpendicular (90°) to the biphasic lead and that has a positive net deflection. In the six limb leads in the example below, aVL (-30°) is biphasic. The positive perpendicular axis to aVL is +60°. Therefore, the mean electrical axis is +60°, which is normal.

Revised 3/10/16


DISCLAIMER: These materials are for educational purposes only, and are not a source of medical decision-making advice.