A pacemaker is a surgically-implanted electronic device that regulates a slow or erratic heartbeat.
Pacemakers are implanted to regulate irregular contractions of the heart (arrhythmia). They are most frequently prescribed to speed the heartbeat of patients who have a heart rate well under 60 beats per minute (severe symptomatic bradycardia). They are also used in some cases to slow a fast heart rate (tachycardia).
The symptoms of fatigue and lightheadedness that are characteristic of bradycardia can also be caused by a number of other medical conditions, including anemia. Certain prescription medications can also slow the heart rate. A doctor should take a complete medical history and perform a full physical work-up to rule out all noncardiac causes of bradycardia.
Patients with cardiac pacemakers should not under-go a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedure. Devices that emit electromagnetic waves (including magnets) may alter pacemaker programming or functioning. A 1997 study found that cellular phones often interfere with pacemaker programming and cause irregular heart rhythm. However, advances in pacemaker design and materials have greatly reduced the risk of pacemaker interference from electromagnetic fields.
Approximately 500,000 Americans have an implantable permanent pacemaker device. A pacemaker implantation is performed under local anesthesia in a hospital by a surgeon assisted by a cardiologist. An insulated wire called a lead is inserted into an incision above the collarbone and guided through a large vein into the chambers of the heart. Depending on the configuration of the pacemaker and the clinical needs of the patient, as many as three leads may be used in a pacing system. Current pacemakers have a double, or bipolar, electrode attached to the end of each lead. The electrodes deliver an electrical charge to the heart to regulate heartbeat. They are positioned on the areas of the heart that require stimulation. The leads are then attached to the pacemaker device, which is implanted under the skin of the patient's chest.
Patients undergoing surgical pacemaker implantation usually stay in the hospital overnight. Once the procedure is complete, the patient's vital signs are monitored and a chest x ray is taken to ensure that the pacemaker and leads are properly positioned.
Modern pacemakers have sophisticated programming capabilities and are extremely compact. The smallest weigh less than 13 grams (under half an ounce) and are the size of two stacked silver dollars. The actual pacing device contains a pulse generator, circuitry programmed to monitor heart rate and deliver stimulation, and a lithiumiodide battery. Battery life typically ranges from seven to 15 years, depending on the number of leads the pacemaker is configured with and how much energy the pacemaker uses. When a new battery is required, the unit can be exchanged in a simple outpatient procedure.
A temporary pacing system is sometimes recommended for patients who are experiencing irregular heartbeats as a result of a recent heart attack or other acute medical condition. The implantation procedure for the pacemaker leads is similar to that for a permanent pacing system, but the actual pacemaker unit housing the pulse generator remains outside the patient's body. Temporary
pacing systems may be replaced with a permanent device at a later date.
Patients being considered for pacemaker implantation will undergo a full battery of cardiac tests, including an electrocardiogram (ECG) or an electrophysiological study or both to fully evaluate the bradycardia or tachycardia.
Patients are advised to abstain from eating 6-8 hours before the surgical procedure. The patient is usually given a sedative to help him or her relax for the procedure. An intravenous (IV) line will also be inserted into a vein in the patient's arm before the procedure begins in case medication or blood products are required during the insertion.
Pacemaker patients should schedule a follow-up visit with their cardiologist approximately six weeks after the surgery. During this visit, the doctor will make any necessary adjustments to the settings of the pacemaker. Pacemakers are programmed externally with a handheld electromagnetic device. Pacemaker batteries must be checked regularly. Some pacing systems allow patients to monitor battery life through a special telephone monitoring service that can read pacemaker signals.
Because pacemaker implantation is an invasive surgical procedure, internal bleeding, infection, hemorrhage, and embolism are all possible complications. Infection is more common in patients with temporary pacing systems. Antibiotic therapy given as a precautionary measure can reduce the risk of pacemaker infection. If infection does occur, the entire pacing system may have to be removed.
The placing of the leads and electrodes during the implantation procedure also presents certain risks for the patient. The lead or electrode could perforate the heart or cause scarring or other damage. The electrodes can also cause involuntary stimulation of nearby skeletal muscles.
A complication known as pacemaker syndrome develops in approximately 7% of pacemaker patients with single-chamber pacing systems. The syndrome is characterized by the low blood pressure and dizziness that are symptomatic of bradycardia. It can usually be corrected by the implantation of a dual-chamber pacing system.
Pacemakers that are properly implanted and programmed can correct a patient's arrhythmia and resolve related symptoms.
DeBakey, Michael E., and Antonio Gotto Jr. The New Living Heart. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1997.
Gillyatt, Peta. "Keeping the Beat: Cardiac Pacemakers." Harvard Health Letter 20 (June 1995): 1-4.
American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. <http://www.americanheart.org>.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin
Electrophysiological study—A test that monitors the electrical activity of the heart in order to diagnose arrhythmia. An electrophysiological study measures electrical signals through a cardiac catheter that is inserted into an artery in the leg and guided up into the atrium and ventricle of the heart.
Embolism—A blood clot, air bubble, or clot of foreign material that blocks the flow of blood in an artery. When an embolism blocks the blood supply to a tissue or organ, the tissue the artery feeds dies (infarction). Without immediate and appropriate treatment, an embolism can be fatal.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—An imaging technique that uses a large circular magnet and radio waves to generate signals from atoms in the body. These signals are used to construct images of internal structures.