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Heart Problems: Living With a Pacemaker

Introduction

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. To learn more about ICDs, see Click here to view an Actionset.Heart Problems: Living With an ICD.

  • 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.
 

Pacemakers 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
    This answer is correct.

    A pacemaker keeps your heart from beating too slowly by sending out mild electrical pulses.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    A pacemaker keeps your heart from beating too slowly by sending out mild electrical pulses.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

To be sure that your device is working right, your doctor will monitor your device 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.

Your doctor will check your pacemaker during regular office visits and remotely. Remote monitoring is done by telephone or through 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
    This answer is correct.

    Pacemakers run on batteries. To be sure that your device is working right, you need to have it checked regularly.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Pacemakers run on batteries. To be sure that your device is working right, you need to have it checked regularly.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

When you have a pacemaker, it's important to avoid strong magnetic and electrical fields. The lists below show some 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.

Your doctor or the manufacturer of your pacemaker can give you a full list of things that you need to avoid and things that are safe to use.

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, unless you have a device that is safe in an MRI machine. 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.
  • Security or anti-theft detectors (metal detectors):
    • Walk through the detector at a normal pace.
    • Don't stand near or lean against the gates or archway.
  • 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

You can drive if you have a pacemaker and you don't have any symptoms such as fainting. But right after you get a pacemaker, your doctor will likely ask you to not drive for at least a week after the device is implanted. This gives you time to heal.

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.

Having follow-up

  • Go to all your appointments with your doctor to check your pacemaker. In between checkups, you will probably send information from your pacemaker to your doctor through a phone line or the Internet. You might do this manually or your device might do it automatically.
  • If you take heart rhythm medicines, take them as prescribed. The medicines work with your pacemaker to help your heart keep a steady rhythm.
  • Your doctor and/or the device maker will contact you about what to do if your device is recalled.

Exercising safely

Pacemakers often are used to improve your ability to exercise. Most people with pacemakers have active lives and can 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.
  • If you want to do strength-training exercises, ask your doctor or a fitness trainer to suggest ones that are safe for someone who has a pacemaker. Some exercises might put too much strain on your device.

Having sex

Most people who have a pacemaker can have an active sex life. After you get a pacemaker implanted, you'll let your chest heal for a short time. If your doctor says that you can exercise and be active, then it's probably safe for you to have sex.

Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns.

Planning for the future

As you plan for your future and your end of life, you can include plans for your pacemaker. You can make the decision to turn off your pacemaker as part of the medical treatment that you want at the end of life. You can put this information in your advance directive.

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
    This answer is correct.

    It's okay to use a cell phone when you have a pacemaker. Just don't carry it in a pocket directly over the device.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    It's okay to use a cell phone when you have a pacemaker. Just don't carry it in a pocket directly over the device.

  •  

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

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    It's important to carry a pacemaker card with you at all times.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    It's important to carry a pacemaker card with you at all times.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

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

If you have questions, take this information with you when you visit your doctor.

Organizations

American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX  75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address: www.heart.org
 

Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.



Heart Rhythm Society
1400 K Street NW
Suite 500
Washington, DC  20005
Phone: (202) 464-3400
Fax: (202) 464-3401
Web Address: www.hrsonline.org
 

The Heart Rhythm Society provides information for patients and the public about heart rhythm problems. The website includes a section that focuses on patient information. This information includes causes, prevention, tests, treatment, and patient stories about heart rhythm problems. You can use the Find a Specialist section of the website to search for a heart rhythm specialist practicing in your area.



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References

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.
  • Lampert R, et al. (2010). HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy. Heart Rhythm, 7(7): 1008–1026. Available online: http://www.hrsonline.org/Policy/ClinicalGuidelines/upload/ceids_mgmt_eol.pdf.
  • Lee S, et al. (2009). Clinically significant magnetic interference of implanted cardiac devices by portable headphones. Heart Rhythm, 6(10): 1432–1436.
  • Levine GN, et al. (2012). Sexual activity and cardiovascular disease: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 125(8): 1058–1072.
  • 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/Practice-Guidance/Clinical-Guidelines-Documents/HRS-EHRA-Expert-Consensus-on-the-Monitoring-of-Cardiovascular-Implantable-Electronic-Devices/2008-Monitoring-of-CIEDs.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Last Revised June 12, 2013

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