Maximal exercise capacity is limited in patients after heart transplantation. The extent to which chronotropic incompetence contributes to this intolerance has not been well defined.This prospective cross-sectional study examined the heart rate response to exercise and its relation to exercise capacity in 159 heart transplant recipients during progressive, symptom-limited, upright exercise. All prior exercise studies of heart transplant recipients that reported peak oxygen uptake and peak heart rate were also evaluated.Peak oxygen uptake was closely correlated with peak heart rate (r = 0.39, p < 0.001) and maximum increase in heart rate (r = 0.49, p < 0.001) during exercise by our patients. Similar correlations were found in the published studies for peak oxygen uptake versus maximal heart rate (r = 0.54, p < 0.05) and peak oxygen uptake versus increase in heart rate (r = 0.63, p < 0.02). The current study showed that the increase in heart rate from rest to peak exercise was significantly higher and the decline in heart rate after exercise significantly faster for patients 2 or more years after transplantation than for patients less than 2 years after transplantation (46 +/- 2 versus 38 +/- 1.9 beats/min, p < 0.05); the decline in heart rate 4 minutes after exercise was 27 +/- 1.8 versus 16 +/- 1.8 beats/min, respectively ( p < 0.001).The reduction in peak oxygen consumption, particularly during the first 2 years, appears to be related in part to chronotropic incompetence. Late after transplantation the heart rate response to exercise is greater and the decline in heart rate after exercise faster, suggesting possible autonomic reinnervation in some patients. Chronotropic incompetence may be an inadequate explanation of oxygen uptake impairment seen late after transplantation, when other factors such as myocardial dysfunction and intrinsic skeletal muscle abnormalities are of increasing importance.
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