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Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICD)

9-minute read

Key facts

  • An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a small device placed near the heart, which detects and corrects abnormal rhythms of the heart.
  • You might need an ICD if you have a heart arrhythmia, such as an abnormally fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • Fitting an ICD will need either a local or general anaesthetic, depending on your circumstances.
  • People with ICDs should avoid certain types of electronic devices with strong magnetic fields, such as chainsaws and MRI.
  • It’s important to tell any health professionals you see that you have an ICD.

What is an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)?

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a small, battery-operated medical device. It is placed in the body during surgery and connected to the heart. It detects and corrects abnormal rhythms of the heart. It is also called an AICD.

What does an ICD do?

An ICD, also sometimes called an AICD (automated implantable cardioverter defibrillator), sits under the skin near the heart. It monitors the heart's rhythm 24 hours a day and detects abnormal rhythms in the ventricles — the parts of the heart that pump blood around the body.

Your heart needs to beat regularly and at a normal pace for blood to reach your organs and tissues. If your heart beats too fast or slow, or irregularly, blood may not be pumped properly around your body. Sometimes, an abnormal rhythm can make it too hard for the heart to pump blood at all.

If an ICD detects an abnormal heart rhythm, it can send an electrical impulse to the heart return it to a normal rhythm — similar to how a pacemaker works. If those impulses don’t work, the ICD can send a stronger electric shock to jolt the heart back into a normal rhythm.

Do I need an ICD?

You might need an ICD if you have a heart arrhythmia, such as an abnormally fast or irregular heartbeat.

If you have a heart arrhythmia, your doctor will refer you for tests to identify its type and cause. The types of test performed will vary depending on your individual circumstances, but may include an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check on your heart’s electrical activity. You may also be referred on ultrasound of your heart (echocardiogram) to look at your heart’s structure and check that it is working normally.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your doctor.

How is an ICD fitted?

The ICD is inserted under the skin of your upper chest during a surgical procedure. This takes 1 to 3 hours to complete.

You might have a sedative medicine to relax you before surgery. In most cases, this surgery needs a local anaesthetic, but some people will have a general anaesthetic. Your doctor will discuss pain relief options with you.

Your doctor will make a small 5 to 10cm incision (cut) to create a 'pocket' in your upper chest, below your collarbone.

Then, 1 or 2 electrical leads are guided through a vein, towards your heart, and are connected to the ICD. Your doctor will check the device to make sure it is working properly.

The ICD is tucked inside the pocket and the incision is closed with sutures (stitches) and covered with a dressing. There will be a visible bulge under your skin where the ICD was inserted.

What are the complications and risks of an ICD?

As with any type of surgery, there are risks associated with ICD surgery.

The most common complication during the ICD procedure is bruising or bleeding from the wound and swelling.

Other less common complications include:

  • puncture of the lung causing an air leak
  • damage to your veins or heart valves from placement of ICD leads
  • unintended movement of the ICD or its leads, which may need to be repositioned
  • infection of the wound or wires
  • ICD malfunction

What should I expect after an ICD fitting procedure?

You will have a dressing over your wound and the site of the surgery may feel a bit sore. There may be some bruising. You should avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes while the wound is healing, as this might irritate your skin.

It may take a few weeks for you to return to normal activities after the procedure. Your doctor will give you advice on how to look after your wound and what exercises or movements you can do in the weeks immediately after the procedure.

Your doctor may recommend that you don’t lift anything heavy with the arm on the same side as the ICD. They might advise you not to push or pull things with that arm, and not to drive.

Always check with your doctor or clinic if you are unsure about what you should (or shouldn't) do.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are worried about your heart at any time, see a doctor. Your doctor will discuss treatment options, and refer you to a heart specialist or surgeon if you need one. In some circumstances, your doctor may prescribe medicines for your condition.

If you have had an ICD fitted, and want to know more about how it works, or need advice on what to do after an ICD procedure, ask your health team. Call your doctor if:

  • your wound becomes infected (it is red, swollen, warm or leaking fluid)
  • you develop a fever up to 8 weeks after the procedure
  • you continue to have any of the heart symptoms you had before the procedure
  • you lose consciousness, either due to an arrhythmia or while receiving a shock
  • you have any numbness or tingling in the arm closest to the ICD
  • you hear a beeping noise coming from the ICD

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How will life with an ICD be different?

Living with an ICD can be stressful. You may feel anxious for a little while after the procedure. Talk to your family and healthcare team about how you are feeling and any concerns you might have.

You will need to go to an ICD clinic for regular follow-up appointments and have 'device checks'. Device checks monitor the electrical functioning of your heart, your device settings and its battery life. Most ICD batteries will last between 5 and 15 years.

Create an action plan with your doctor so you know what to do if you get an electric shock from your ICD. Carry an ID card with your ICD details in your wallet or purse.

Tell all health professionals who treat you that you have an ICD.

When you have an ICD, you need to avoid certain types of electronic devices with strong magnetic fields. Devices with strong magnetic fields may cause your device to stop working. Tell your health team you have an ICD if you need a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Avoid household devices with a strong magnetic field.

Most items you use in daily life won’t cause any problems, but you should keep these items at least 15 centimetres away from your ICD:

  • mobile phones — use yours on the opposite side of the body to the ICD and avoid putting it in a pocket near your device
  • airport screening wands — let airport security know that you have an ICD

It is also recommended that you avoid using:

  • industrial welders
  • electric generators
  • chainsaws
  • magnetic mattresses and pillows

Talk to your doctor if your work involves any of these items, if you are a commercial driver or if you operate heavy machinery.

Resources and support

Talk to your health professional about the benefits and risks of getting a medical implant. Use the Therapeutic Goods Administration's guide on what to ask. The information is in English, Arabic, Croatian, Farsi, Greek, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese.

For more information about ICDs, including how they work, when they are recommended and living with an ICD, see the St Vincents Hospital Heart Health website:

The Heart Foundation offers a directory to find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you.

Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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