Pacemakers

Normally, the heart is signaled to contract, or squeeze, by an electrical impulse that starts in the sinus node at the top of the right atrium. The impulse then travels through the heart's "wires," to the muscles of the lower chambers of the heart (right and left ventricles), telling them to contract and cause a heartbeat. This natural system helps the heart pump in an efficient rhythm.

A problem with any part of this system, though - either the heart's natural "pacemaker" or the wires carrying the impulses - can cause a slow heart rate.

An artificial pacemaker may be needed to reset the heart to the right pace and make sure blood and oxygen are pumped to the brain and other parts of the body.

What is a Pacemaker?

Artificial pacemakers are devices that are implanted into the body, usually just below the collarbone, to take over the job of the heart's own electrical system and prevent slow heart rates.

Although they weigh only an ounce and are the size of a large wrist watch face, a pacemaker contains a computer with memory and electrical circuits, a powerful battery (generator), and special wires called "leads." The generator creates electrical impulses that are carried by the leads to the heart muscle, signaling it to pump.

Are there types of Pacemakers?

They are actually different kinds of pacemakers depending on what the patient needs.

Single Chamber Pacemakers have one wire that is placed in the right upper chamber (atrium) or lower chamber (ventricle).

Dual Chamber Pacemakers have two wires, one in the atrium and one in the ventricle.

Biventricular Pacemakers have three wires, one in the right atrium, one in the right ventricle and a third in the left ventricle. These more complicated pacemakers take more time to implant, and can be used to improve pumping in patients with heart failure.

Rate Responsive Pacemakers adjust the heart rate to a patient's level of activity. They pace faster when a patient is exercising and slower when a patient is resting.

Antitachycardia Pacemakers can detect and treat atrial arrhythmias with overdrive pacing.

When are Pacemakers Used?

Pacemakers are used to treat abnormally slow heart beats. They may be prescribed for a number of conditions, including:

Bradycardia
A condition in which the heart beats too slowly, causing symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness or fainting spells.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib)
A common heart rhythm disorder in which the heart beats too fast and chaotically. Sometimes, people with AFib can also have slow rhythms. Medications used to control atrial fibrillation may result in slow rhythms, which are treated by pacemakers.

Heart Failure
A condition in which the heartbeat is not strong enough to carry a normal amount of blood and oxygen to the brain and other parts of the body. A special pacemaker can be programmed to increase the force of heart muscle contractions. This is called "biventricular pacing or "resynchronization" therapy.

Syncope
A condition best known as "fainting," usually not serious. Some patients faint when their heart rate becomes too slow. A pacemaker prevents slow heart rates and can cure syncope in some patients.

Talking to your Doctor

By talking openly to your doctor, you will know what treatments are best for you. Your doctor can provide advice based upon your concerns, value and priorities; a process called shared decision-making. Even if you simply want to follow your doctor’s recommendations, it is important to have a conversation about what matters most to you.

Treatment

What should I expect when getting a pacemaker?

Getting a pacemaker most often does not require open-heart surgery.

The procedure usually takes only about two hours. The pacemaker generator is implanted in a small pocket made under the skin. The leads are usually placed in a vein near the collarbone, and then moved to the heart with the help of an X-ray machine. The leads touch the heart muscle on one end, and are connected to the pacemaker generator on the other end. The pacemaker is programmed to send signals to the heart, and settings can be changed at any time. Routine monitoring, sometimes even by phone, makes sure the pacemaker is working properly.

The battery in the generator lasts 5-10 years and must be replaced when it runs out.

Keep Exploring

Heart Rhythm Disorders
Millions of people experience irregular or abnormal heartbeats, called arrhythmias, at some point in their lives. Most of the time, they are harmless and happen in healthy people free of heart disease. However, some abnormal heart rhythms can be serious or even deadly. Having other types of heart disease can also increase the risk of arrhythmias.
Pediatrics and Congenital Heart Disease (CHD)
This section is for pediatric patients and families living with heart rhythm disorders and heart rhythm disorders related to congenital heart disease (CHD).
Early Warning Signs
If you are experiencing a racing, pounding, rumbling or flopping feeling in your chest or if you have been fainting, having repeated dizzy spells, feeling lightheaded or you are extremely fatigued, it's time to see a doctor to discuss your heart health.
Common Treatments
Learning about the underlying cause of any heart rhythm disorder provides the basis for selecting the best treatment plan. Information and knowledge about care options, and their risks and benefits help you work with your health care provider to make the best choices.
Lifestyle
Since other heart disorders increase the risk of developing abnormal heart rhythms, lifestyle changes often are recommended. Living a “heart healthy” lifestyle can ease the symptoms experienced with heart rhythm disorders and other heart disorders, and can be beneficial to overall patient health.
The Normal Heart
The heart is a fist-sized muscle that pumps blood through the body 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without rest. The normal heart is made up of four parts: two atria on the top of the heart (right atrium and left atrium), and two ventricles (right ventricle and left ventricle) which are the muscular chambers on the bottom of the heart that provide the major power to pump blood.