A pacemaker is a small device placed under your skin to help control your heartbeat. The reason for a pacemaker could be several conditions referred to as arrhythmias, where the heart’s beat or rhythm is abnormal.
Factors of an abnormal heartbeat could be older age, heart muscle damage that may be due to a heart attack, heart medications, or genetic conditions.
How Your Heart Beats
Your heart has four chambers, the upper two chambers being the right and left atria, and the lower two chambers being the right and left valves. A healthy heartbeat is 60-90 beats per minute for resting adults. When a heart beats too slowly, fatigue, confusion, and shortness of breath occur.
The heart’s electrical pulses cause the right and left atria to squeeze blood into the ventricles, and once the ventricles are filled, they pump blood to the rest of your body.
What is a Pacemaker?
An implanted pacemaker mimics the action of your heart’s natural pacemaker. The implanted pacemaker has two parts, the pulse generator and the leads (electrodes).
- The pulse generator: This small container has a battery that regulates the rate of electric pulses sent to the heart.
- Leads (electrodes): These are 1-3 flexible wires that are placed inside one or more chambers of the heart and deliver electric pulses to adjust your heart rate.
If your heartbeat is too slow, the pacemaker will speed up by sending electric pulses to the heart. Because pacemakers have sensors to detect the body’s breathing rate, if the body is exercising and the heart rate needs to be increased, then pacemaker will adjust it accordingly.
What Do Pacemakers Treat?
- Most commonly, pacemakers are used to treat slow heart rhythms
- Heart failure
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (muscle of the heart is thickened without cause)
- Syncope (fainting spells)
Pacemaker surgery is a minor surgery that is usually performed in a hospital. You will receive medicine through an IV to help you relax, and the doctor will also numb the area of the incision where he is implanting the pacemaker.
The doctor inserts a needle into a large vein, near your shoulder, where he can thread the pacemaker wires into your vein and correctly place them in the heart. This process is done with the help of an x-ray screen that is showing him images inside your body. Once the wires are in place, the doctor will make another small incision in your abdomen or chest to place the pacemaker box just under the skin. The wires in your heart are connected at the opposite end to the pacemaker, which is the battery-operated generator. This whole process takes a few hours.
Recovery from pacemaker surgery will usually require one night’s stay at the hospital so the doctor can verify the pacemaker is working properly. You should also arrange to be taken home from the hospital. There may be mild tenderness around the areas of the incisions.
Vigorous activity should wait about a month after the surgery, but other routine activities can be returned to within a few days after surgery.
- Swelling and bleeding near the incision point
- Potential infection near the incision area
- Blood vessel or nerve damage
- Bad reaction to medication
- A collapsed lung
Devices to Avoid
Certain devices can disrupt the pacemaker’s electrical signals and prevent it from working properly. Furthermore, you may not be able to tell that the pacemaker has been affected. The following list of items depends on how long you have been exposed to it as well as how close it is to your pacemaker.
- Cell phones should not be within 6 inches of the pacemaker. i.e. Men should not put a cell phone in their shirt pocket over their chest.
- Microwaves and ovens – avoid prolonged exposure
- Metal detectors
- Industrial Welders – stay two feet away
- Electrical generators
- High-tension wires
The doctor or nurse at regular checkups, about every 3-6 months, will check batteries. The battery life should last 5-15 years, depending on how active the pacemaker is.
Replacing the battery is a much more minor surgery than originally implanting the pacemaker and the wires may need to be replaced as well.
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