Sometimes, the electrical impulses of your heart's natural pacemaker become ineffective. Cardiac pacemakers replace or supplement the heart's natural electrical current to regulate how your heart beats.
I remember when my mother got her pacemaker. When she left the house to go to the hospital that night, she didn't think she would ever return to the old stone house on the farm she and my father called home. That was in 1986 and although she's no longer on the farm, and both my parents have since passed away, her heart kept pumping until age 86, thanks in part to her cardiac pacemaker.
How does it work?
The cardiac pacemaker is a small battery-powered unit that produces electrical impulses to regulate your heartbeat. Implanted under your skin, just below your collar bone, the pacemaker is connected to your heart through tiny wires called leads that are inserted at the same time. The electrical impulses flow through these leads and regulate your heart rate just as your heart's natural pacemaker would.
How long will it last?
Eventually the batteries will wear out and the cardiac pacemaker will need to be replaced, but these batteries do last a long time (we're talking many years!). The battery in my mother's second pacemaker has lasted over 14 years. Her first battery lasted 8 years.
Periodic checks are necessary to measure the function of the device and the amount of energy left in the battery. In some cases a check-up may be a simple procedure consisting of placing a special “trans-telephonic follow-up device” over the pacemaker, and transmitting data over the telephone. In other cases, it may mean a visit to your doctor or clinic.
As the batteries lose effectiveness, your cardiac pacemaker will slow, but it won't stop suddenly. As you get closer to the end of the anticipated life of the battery you will have more frequent checks. Your doctor will likely detect the first warning that the batteries are running down - before you detect any changes yourself.
When the battery shows signs of getting low, your doctor will schedule a pacemaker replacement. This is a minor surgical procedure similar to the original procedure, except that usually the pacemaker leads do not need to be replaced. Using a local anesthesia, the incision is opened, the old pacemaker is detached from the leads and removed, a new pacemaker is inserted, and the incision is closed. It is not merely a "battery change," though doctors sometimes call it that, rather the entire cardiac pacemaker is replaced.
Any sudden changes or major slowing of your heart rate indicates a more serious problem. If that happens, call your doctor.
LIVING with a cardiac pacemaker
After you get a pacemaker, (assuming you are otherwise reasonably healthy) you will likely return to a completely normal life and do all the things that people in your age group typically do.
Many people find they are able to do more after getting a pacemaker than they were in the months previously, because they have more energy.
Check with your doctor first, but you should be able to:
You will want to avoid receiving a blow to the skin over the location of the pacemaker. The risk is that this could affect the pacemaker's functioning. If you do receive a blow to that area, contact your doctor.
What will interfere with the operation of my pacemaker?
The following DO NOT interfere:
The following DO interfere:
A word to the wise...
If you have a pacemaker, always carry a wallet card and/or wear a medic alert bracelet or necklace. In an emergency situation, these alerts will tell the people helping you that you have a pacemaker.
Complications can include pacemaker failure (extremely rare), and lead failure (less rare).
Symptoms that might indicate a pacemaker malfunction include weakness, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. If any of these symptoms are present, you or your family should notify your doctor.
Do you have a pacemaker? Tell us your story.