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Heart Problems: Living With a Pacemaker


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A pacemaker keeps your heart from beating too slowly. It's important to know how this device works and how to keep it working right. Learning a few important facts about pacemakers can help you get the best results from your device.

You may have a device that combines a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), which can shock your heart back to a normal rhythm. For more information on ICDs, see Click here to view an Actionset.Heart Problems: Living With an ICD.

Key points

  • Avoid strong magnetic and electrical fields. These can keep your device from working right.
  • Most office equipment and home appliances are safe to use. Learn which things you should use with caution and which you should stay away from.
  • Be sure that any doctor, dentist, or other health professional you see knows that you have a pacemaker.
  • Always carry a card in your wallet that tells what kind of device you have. Wear medical alert jewelry that says you have a pacemaker.
  • Have your pacemaker checked regularly to make sure it is working right.

Return to topic:

PacemakersClick here to see an illustration. are small electrical devices that help control the timing of your heartbeat.

A pacemaker is implanted under the skin of your chest wall. The pacemaker's wires are passed through a vein into the chambers of your heart. The pacemaker sends out small electrical pulses that keep your heart from beating too slowly.

Test Your Knowledge

A pacemaker sends out mild electrical pulses that keep your heart from beating too slowly.

True
False

To be sure that your device is working right, you will need to have it checked regularly. Pacemakers can stop working because of loose or broken wires or other problems. Your doctor also will make sure that your pacemaker settings are right for what your body needs.

You may need to go to your doctor's office, or you may be able to get the device checked over the phone or the Internet.

Pacemakers run on batteries. In most cases, pacemaker batteries last 5 to 15 years. When it's time to replace the battery, you'll need another surgery, although it will be easier than the surgery you had to place the device. The surgery is easier, because your doctor doesn't have to replace the leads that go to your heart.

Test Your Knowledge

It's important to have your pacemaker checked regularly to make sure it is working right.

True
False

When you have a pacemaker, it's important to avoid strong magnetic and electrical fields. The lists below show electrical and magnetic sources and how they may affect your pacemaker. For best results, follow these guidelines. These safety tips also apply to devices that combine an ICD and a pacemaker. If you have questions, check with your doctor.

Safety guidelines for pacemakers and ICDs

Stay away from:

  • CB or ham radios
  • High-voltage power lines. Stay at least 25 ft (7.5 m) away.
  • Large magnets
  • MRI machines. An MRI uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body.

Use with caution:

  • Cell phones:
    • Do not carry a cell phone in a pocket directly over the pacemaker or ICD.
    • Hold the phone to the ear on the side away from your device.
    • Keep a phone at least 6 in. (15 cm) away from the pacemaker or ICD.
  • MP3 player headphones:
    • Do not keep headphones in a chest pocket. Do not drape headphones over your chest.
  • Keep the following devices at least 12 in. (30.5 cm) away from the pacemaker or ICD:
    • Arc welders
    • Battery-powered cordless power tools
    • Industrial power generators
    • Magnets
    • Magnetic wands used at airports
    • Stereo speakers
    • Radio transmitters (including those used in toys)

Safe to use:

  • Kitchen and bathroom equipment:
    • Bathroom appliances (electric razors, curling irons, and hair dryers)
    • Kitchen appliances (such as toasters, blenders, electric can openers, and refrigerators)
    • Microwave, gas, and electric ovens
  • Other household items:
    • Electric tools (such as drills and table saws)
    • Lawn and garden equipment (such as mowers and leaf blowers)
    • Heating pads and electric blankets
    • Washing machines and dryers
    • Phones (land-line phones including cordless models)
    • Remote controls
    • TVs, VCRs, CD players, DVD players
  • Office equipment:
    • Computers
    • Copy machines
    • Fax machines
    • Printers

Having medical tests and procedures

Most medical tests and procedures won't affect your pacemaker, except for MRI, which uses strong magnets. To be safe:

  • Let your doctors, dentists, and other health professionals know that you have a pacemaker before you have any test, procedure, or surgery.
  • Have your dentist talk to your doctor before you have any dental work or surgery.
  • If you need physical therapy, have the therapist contact your doctor before using ultrasound, heat therapy, or electrical stimulation.

Traveling

You can travel safely with a cardiac device. But you'll want to be prepared before you go.

  • Bring a list of the names and phone numbers of your doctors.
  • Bring your cardiac device identification card with you.
  • Know what to do when going through airport security.

Driving

Talk to your doctor about how having a heart rhythm problem may affect your ability to drive.

Letting others know

  • Carry a pacemaker identification card with you at all times. The card should include manufacturer information and the model number. Your doctor can give you an ID card.
  • Wear medical alert jewelry stating that you have a pacemaker. You can buy this at most drugstores or online.

Going to follow-up visits

Exercising safely

Pacemakers often are used to improve your ability to exercise. Talk to your doctor about the type and amount of exercise and other activity you can do.

In general:

  • You may need to limit your activity if you have an irregular heart rate caused by heart failure or another heart problem.
  • Don't play contact sports, such as soccer or basketball, because the device can be damaged. Sports such as swimming, running, walking, tennis, golf, and bicycling are safer.

Stop exercising and call your doctor if you have:

  • Pressure or pain in your chest, neck, arm, jaw, or shoulder.
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or nausea.
  • Unusual shortness of breath or tiredness.
  • A heartbeat that feels unusual for you: too fast, too slow, or skipping a beat.
  • Other symptoms that cause you concern.

When to call a doctor

Call your doctor right away if you have symptoms that could mean your device isn't working properly, such as:

  • Your heartbeat is very fast or slow, skipping, or fluttering.
  • You feel dizzy, lightheaded, or faint.
  • You have shortness of breath that is new or getting worse.

Call your doctor right away if you think you have an infection near your device. Signs of an infection include:

  • Changes in the skin around your device, such as swelling, warmth, redness, and pain.
  • An unexplained fever.

Test Your Knowledge

It's safe to use a cell phone, but don't keep it in a pocket directly over your pacemaker.

True
False

You need to carry a pacemaker ID card with you at all times. The card should include manufacturer information and the model number.

True
False

Now that you have read this information, you know more about living with a pacemaker.

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to make notes on pages where you have questions.

Other Works Consulted

  • Akoum NW, et al. (2008). Pacemaker therapy. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 1, chap. 7. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.

  • Baddour LM, et al. (2010). Update on cardiovascular implantable electronic device infections and their management. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 121(3): 458–477.

  • Lee S, et al. (2009). Clinically significant magnetic interference of implanted cardiac devices by portable headphones. Heart Rhythm, 6(10): 1432–1436.

  • Sears SF, et al. (2005). How to respond to an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator shock. Circulation, 111(23): e380–e382.

  • Swerdlow CD, et al. (2012). Pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators. In RO Bonow et al., eds., Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 745–770. Philadelphia: Saunders.

  • Wilkoff BL, et al. (2008). HRS/EHRA expert consensus on the monitoring of cardiovascular implantable electronic devices (CIEDS): Description of techniques, indications, personnel, frequency and ethical considerations. Heart Rhythm, 5(6): 907–925. Available online: http://www.hrsonline.org/Policy/ClinicalGuidelines/upload/cieds_guidelines.pdf.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Last RevisedJune 2, 2011

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