Common questions about pacemakers
Since 1960, when the very first pacemaker was implanted in a person, countless lives have not only improved but have been saved and extended beyond their years. Worldwide, over three million people currently are benefitting from Wilson Greatbatch’s invention of the pacemaker, with around 400,000 being implanted each year.
What is a pacemaker and why are they needed?
The heart is a muscular, fist-sized pump with four chambers, two on the left side and two on the right. For the heart to function properly, the heart’s chambers must work in a coordinated fashion. A healthy heart will have electrical currents which stimulate the muscle to beat properly squeezing to pump blood throughout the body. A normal resting heart rate is about 60 to 100 beats per minute, although very fit people might have a rate in the range of 40 to 60.
But when the timing of the electrical circuit is not working right causing the heart to heat erratically, too slow or too quickly, that’s when a pacemaker can help. A pacemaker helps the heart to beat faster, slower, or in a more steady way allowing your body to get the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
Pacemakers are a small device that is implanted under the skin, just under the collarbone. The device includes a computer with electrical circuits that restores the heart’s normal pace with a battery that powers the computer. There are also wires called leads that connect the computer to the heart. A thin metal box covers the computer and battery with the lead extending out from the box with sensors at their tips.
The procedure to implant a pacemaker does not require open heart surgery and most people go home within 24 hours. Before the surgery, medication may be given making a person feel sleepy and comfortable, and generally the procedure is performed under local anesthesia.
How does a pacemaker work?
Pacemakers work by sensing how the heart is beating. While the heart beats, the sensors send data to the computer in the pacemaker telling it what is going on. If the heart is beating normally, then the pacemaker simply monitors the beats. But if the heart is beating too fast, too slow, or in an irregular way, then the pacemaker’s computer sends out electrical signals to regulate the beats.
What are the signs of needing a pacemaker?
Signs or symptoms that may indicate the need of a pacemaker include fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, and the inability to exercise without getting out of breath are all potential signs of needing a pacemaker. Symptoms like fatigue and dizziness are somewhat vague and subjective. That’s why medical providers use non-invasive electrocardiogram (ECG) tests to monitor the heart’s electrical activity. Using ECG data, a medical provider will know better if a pacemaker is a good fit.
Who needs a pacemaker?
There are several reasons why a person may benefit from getting a pacemaker:
· People with arrhythmias or problems with heart rate or rhythm
· Bradycardia – an abnormally slow heart rate of an electrical problem that can happen because of aging
· Heart attack or other health problems that affect the heart’s electrical system
· Atrial fibrillation – a condition that makes the top and bottom chambers of your heart beat out of rhythm with each other
· Syncope or fainting caused by a slow heartbeat
Does a person need to make changes to their lifestyle after getting a pacemaker?
This depends on the lifestyle habits of the person before getting a pacemaker and their doctor’s advice. Common lifestyle habits that will be encouraged include:
· Getting more exercise
· Improving eating habits
· Quitting smoking
· Finding healthy ways to cope with stress
Are there certain things to know about living safe with a pacemaker?
People with pacemakers can live very normal lives, but there are certain precautions they need to keep in mind:
· Keep a pacemaker ID card with them at all times. Wearing a medical bracelet or necklace letting others know of an implanted pacemaker is also strongly suggested
· All health providers – doctors, dentists, eye doctor, X-ray technicians, etc. – should be informed if a person has a pacemaker.
· Before going through security at an airport, sports venue, or other venue, security will need to know if a person has a pacemaker
· Discuss with the doctor if there are any home appliances that may interfere with the pacemaker
· When talking on a cell phone, it is recommended to hold the phone on the side of the body opposite the pacemaker. Do not carry a cellphone in the breast pocket of a shirt or coat.