A healthy heart comes with a natural pacemaker that controls the rhythm and rate of the heartbeat. Each time the heart beats, an electrical pulse travels from the top of the heart to its base. As the signal spreads, the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body. Irregular heart rhythms, heart attacks, and other heart diseases can disrupt or slow the heartbeat. When this occurs, a doctor may recommend a pacemaker. Pacemakers are an effective treatment for heart disease.

A pacemaker consists of a battery and a small computer generator enclosed in a little metal case. One to three tiny lead wires with electrodes on the tips extend from the case and attach to the heart. The battery powers the generator, which monitors and controls the heartbeat. The electrodes detect the heart’s electrical activity and transmit the information to the generator. If the heartbeat is irregular, the generator sends an electrical pulse to the heart to regulate its rhythm and rate. The pacemaker only works when needed. It only comes on when the heartbeat is too fast, too slow, or irregular.

There are two types of pacemakers. Long-term wearers often receive an internal pacemaker that lies beneath the skin, under the collarbone. Short-term wearers may receive an external pacemaker, which lies outside the skin. External pacemakers generally come with a battery pack that can be worn on a belt, and require a longer hospital stay.

Advantages and Disadvantages

A normal functioning heart alleviates the fatigue and rapid breathing associated with an abnormal heartbeat. Individuals may notice an increase in energy and stamina, which allows a more active lifestyle. Due to technological advances, patients spend less time in the hospital after surgery. A successful pacemaker surgery requires an overnight stay in the hospital and follow-up care at the doctor’s office in a few weeks. Newer pacemakers come with remote access, which allows the doctor to monitor pacemaker activity via telephone or Internet.

The doctor may suggest some lifestyle adjustments. Generally, a pacemaker will not limit sports, exercise, or strenuous activities. Contact sports, such as boxing, football, soccer, or martial arts, can damage or dislodge the pacemaker or the leads. Individuals must exercise caution when handling devices with strong magnetic fields. Devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, and microwave ovens can disrupt the pacemaker’s electrical signal and prevent it from functioning properly. Long-term pacemaker wearers must have surgery on average every six to seven years to replace the battery and generator.

With the proper care and treatment, many people with pacemakers live active, fulfilling lives.