A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

The beat goes on: What to know about pacemakers

Man and woman walking through the woods - Pacemakers

Advancements in pacemaker technology mean Marshfield Clinic doctors can monitor your heart health even when you’re at home.

Advancements in medical technology are making long relied on pacemakers even more effective in protecting overall heart health.

A pacemaker is a surgically implanted device, which “delivers electrical impulses to the heart to stimulate it to keep it from going too slow,” according to Dr. John Hayes, a Marshfield Clinic cardiologist.

While the first implantable pacemaker was invented in 1958, Hayes said the pacemaker was not widely used until the 1970s and is regularly used today.

Who needs a pacemaker?

Patients with an abnormally slow heartbeat that is causing symptoms are candidates to receive the device. Some people requiring a pacemaker may simply have an issue with a slow heartbeat, but commonly the need for a pacemaker is accompanied by other heart health issues, Hayes said.

Symptoms of an abnormally slow heartbeat may include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, feeling faint and abnormal fatigue.

”But all those symptoms could be caused by a variety of other issues,” Hayes said.  “So the best course of action is to first consult with your primary doctor.”

How are pacemakers implanted?

Pacemakers are implanted while patients are inside a special X-ray room and under sedation, Hayes said.

Local anesthetic just below the collarbone, where the pacemaker will be positioned, is used to numb the skin. Wires are then threaded through a vein to the heart and subsequently hooked to the pacemaker, which allows the pacemaker to detect the patient’s heartbeat.

“If the heartbeat is not there, the pacemaker delivers a heartbeat timed in a way that mimics how the heart would normally work,” Hayes said.

Advancements

Major improvements in pacemakers over time include the ability for doctors to remotely monitor the device’s performance, Hayes said.

“Typically, people with pacemakers have a monitor in their homes, which collects information from the pacemaker that can then be sent to Marshfield Clinic providers, notifying us of problems we previously would not have known about,” Hayes said.

Today’s pacemakers can inform providers of other issues, like atrial fibrillation, the rapid beating of the heart’s upper chambers.

Leadless or wireless pacemakers are just becoming available, though Hayes said the technology needs refinement. Eliminating the wires eliminates the possibility of wires breaking and causing infection.

Does having a pacemaker impact your lifestyle?

“Most of the time, there’s not a big change in lifestyle required once a pacemaker is implanted,” Hayes said.

Exercising is fine with a pacemaker. However, he noted it’s important to protect the area where the pacemaker is implanted from trauma. Contact sports are discouraged.

Additionally, while it’s OK to use a cellphone when you have a pacemaker, Hayes said it’s best to keep the phone from being in close proximity to the pacemaker, like in a shirt pocket.

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