For a normal heartbeat, your body utilizes a natural “pacemaker” to generate electrical impulses in a specialized area of the heart that travel down specific pathways and stimulate the cardiac muscle to contract. If this natural electrical impulse malfunctions, your doctor may elect to use an artificial electronic device called a pacemaker to stimulate the heart. Pacemakers may stimulate either the upper chambers of the heart (atria) or both the upper and lower chambers (atria and ventricles). Some pacemakers also built with an internal device, called a defibrillator, which can shock the heart back into a regular rhythm if it stops.
A variety of conditions may call for pacing. Most often, pacemakers are used to correct an abnormally slow heartbeat by sending electrical impulses to one or more chambers of the heart.
Artificial pacemakers may be either permanent or temporary. A permanent pacemaker is implanted into a patient’s chest during a minor surgical procedure that may require a short stay in the hospital. Some patients may also need to take medications, called antiarrhythmics, afterward to help the heart maintain a normal rhythm. Once in place, the pacemaker operates on batteries, which last for about 5 to 10 years. Pacemaker batteries will not run out unexpectedly – your doctor can determine when the battery is running low during a routine office visit.
Annually, almost 200,000 pacemakers are implanted in the United States. A pacemaker can significantly improve quality of life; however, people with pacemakers should exercise caution in certain situations. Because there is a small risk of life-threatening problems, people with pacemakers are advised to:
- Avoid walking through metal detectors or spending any long periods of time near store security gates or entrances.
- Avoid magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and tests.
- Hold cellular phones at least 6 inches from the pacemaker at all times, even if the phone is not in operation or turned off. Use and store the cell phone on the side of the body opposite to the side the pacemaker is located.
- Avoid any areas or equipment that generate strong electrical or magnetic fields, such as slot machines, remote-control toys, amusement park rides and attractions, power plants, junkyards that use large magnets, stereo speakers (when held close to the pacemaker), or poorly shielded car engines.
- Avoid working on car engines while they are running.