Its main cardiac effects are
Digoxin also increases vagal activity via its action on the central nervous system, thus decreasing the conduction of electrical impulses through the AV node. This is important for its clinical use in different arrhythmias (see below).
The use of digoxin in heart problems during sinus rhythm was once standard, but is now controversial. In theory the increased force of contraction should lead to improved pumping function of the heart, but its effect on prognosis is disputable and other effective treatments are now available. Digoxin is no longer the first choice for congestive heart failure, but can still be useful in patients who remain symptomatic despite proper diuretic and ACE inhibitor treatment. It has fallen out of favor because it was proven to be ineffective at decreasing morbidity and mortality in congestive heart failure. It is shown to increase quality of life, however.
Digoxin is usually given by mouth, but can also be given by IV injection in urgent situations (the IV injection should be slow, heart rhythm should be monitored). The half life is about 36 hours, digoxin is given once daily, usually in 125 μg or 250 μg dosing. In patients with decreased kidney function the half life is considerably longer, calling for a reduction in dosing or a switch to a different glycoside (such as digitoxin which although having a much longer elimination half-life of around 7 days, is mainly eliminated from the body via the liver, and thus not affected by changes in renal function).
Effective plasma levels are fairly well defined, 1-2.6 nmol/l. In suspected toxicity or ineffectiveness, digoxin levels should be monitored. Plasma potassium levels also need to be closely controlled (see side effects below).
Common adverse effects (≥1% of patients) include: loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, visual disturbances (yellow-green halos), confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nightmares, agitation, and/or depression, as well as a higher acute sense of sensual activities. Less frequent adverse effects (0.1%–1%) include: acute psychosis, delirium, amnesia, shortened QRS complex, atrial or ventricular extrasystoles, paroxysmal atrial tachycardia with AV block, ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation, heart block but when systematically sought, the evidence for this is equivocal. The pharmacological actions of digoxin usually results in electrocardiogram (ECG) changes, including ST depression or T wave inversion, which do not indicate toxicity. PR interval prolongation, however, may be a sign of digoxin toxicity. Additionally, increased intracellular Ca2+ may cause a type of arrhythmia called bigeminy (coupled beats), eventually ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation. The combination of increased (atrial) arrhythmogenesis and inhibited atrio-ventricular conduction (for example paroxysmal atrial tachycardia with A-V block - so-called "PAT with block") is said to be pathognomonic (i.e. diagnostic) of digoxin toxicity.
An often described but rarely seen adverse effect of digoxin is a disturbance of colour vision (mostly yellow and green colour) called xanthopsia. It has been proposed that the painter Vincent Van Gogh's "Yellow Period" may have somehow been influenced by concurrent digitalis therapy.
In overdose, the usual supportive measures are needed. If arrhythmias prove troublesome, or malignant hyperkalaemia occurs (inexorably rising potassium level due to paralysis of the cell membrane bound ATPase-dependent Na/K pumps), the specific antidote is antidigoxin (antibody fragments against digoxin, trade names of Digibind and Digifab). Toxicity can also be treated with higher than normal doses of potassium. Digoxin is not removed by hemo or peritoneal dialysis with enough effectiveness to treat toxicity.
Researchers at Yale University looked at data from an earlier study to see if digoxin affected men and women differently. That study determined that digoxin, which has been used for centuries and makes the heart contract more forcefully, did not reduce deaths overall but did result in less hospitalization.
Researcher Dr. Harlan Krumholz said they were surprised to find that women in the study who took digoxin died more frequently (33%) than women who took a dummy pill (29%). They calculated that digoxin increased the risk of death in women by 23%. There was no difference in the death rate for men in the study.