A pacemaker is a small medical device that’s placed in the chest or abdomen to correct certain heart problems.
What is a pacemaker?
A pacemaker is a device that gives off electrical impulses to the heart. These make the heart beat at a normal rate. It consists of a battery, a tiny computer and a generator in a thin metal box, along with wires that connect the pacemaker to the heart.
There are different types of pacemakers and your doctor will discuss which one is best for you.
Who needs a pacemaker?
A permanent artificial pacemaker may be recommended if you have:
- arrhythmias including heart block (when the electrical signals in the heart are delayed)
- heart disease
- other conditions that affect the heart rate
People who have arrhythmias find their heart beats slower or faster than normal or has an irregular rhythm. Their heart may then not be able to pump enough blood to the body. This can make them feel tired, short of breath, dizzy or faint. It can be dangerous.
There are other treatments for arrhythmia. Your doctor will discuss with you whether a pacemaker is the best treatment for you and your problem.
Read more about heart procedures and devices.
How is a pacemaker inserted?
A pacemaker is inserted in minor surgery under an anaesthetic.
During surgery, the doctor or cardiologist will insert a wire into a large vein under the collarbone and thread it through to the heart. The doctor will check it is in the right place with an x-ray.
The small box containing the battery and pulse generator is inserted in a little cut just under the skin of the chest or abdomen. It is attached to the wire from the heart. Sometimes a second wire is needed.
Read about pacemaker surgery.
What are the risks?
Pacemaker surgery is usually safe and the body won’t reject a pacemaker. However, some people may have:
- swelling, bruising or bleeding
- blood vessel or nerve damage
- collapsed lung
- a reaction to medicine during surgery
Talk to your doctor about the risks of surgery.
Living with a pacemaker
The pacemaker's battery should last between 5 to 15 years, depending on how much the heart relies on it. Regular checks of the battery are needed so it can be replaced if necessary.
Most people with pacemakers can play sport, swim, have sex and keep up other physical activities. They should avoid contact sport though such as football. They need regular check-ups by the specialist to make sure the pacemaker is working properly.
Occasionally electrical devices with a strong magnetic field, including mobile phones, microwave ovens and high tension wires, can interfere with a pacemaker. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any problems.
Your doctor will give you a medical ID bracelet or a card to keep in your wallet to let people know you have a pacemaker. You’ll also get instructions about being careful with some electrical equipment and medical procedures.
Read more about pacemakers and your lifestyle.
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Last reviewed: May 2020