Pacemaker Users: Use Mobile Devices With Caution

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Pacemakers help keep about 3 million hearts around the world beating at a normal rhythm. But interference from the ever-evolving technology, like cell phones, can keep them from operating properly.

A pacemaker is a small implantable device that keeps a person’s heart beating regularly – providing the body with the blood and oxygen it needs to function. However, their performance can be compromised when they come in close contact with strong electromagnetic fields from metal detectors, electrical generators, and high-tension wires.

If you wear a pacemaker, you have had to learn to adjust your lifestyle to avoid this problem. And as magnetic-emitting devices have become more close and personal, such as cell phones and tablets, you have had to adapt even more.

According to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA), radiofrequency energy from cell phones can interact with some electronic devices such as pacemakers. The FDA helped develop a standard that cell phone manufacturers can follow to make mobile devices less likely to interfere. Still, cardiologists such as Mark Krebs, MD, say you should be aware of the risks and learn to be cautious when using mobile devices.

“Items usually have to have a strong magnetic field in order to interfere with pacemakers, and though unlikely, cell phones can pose that risk,” says Dr. Krebs. “That’s why we coach our patients on small steps they can take to reduce that risk while still being able to use the devices that their lifestyle requires.”

Changing With Technology

Pacemakers are usually affected in one of three ways by cell phone interference, the FDA says. They may be unable to deliver stimulating pulses to regulate the heart’s rhythm; they may deliver the pulses irregularly; or they may ignore the heart’s rhythm and deliver pulses at a fixed rate.

According to the FDA, you can safely use a cell phone, if you wear a pacemaker, by taking two simple precautions:

  • Proper storage. Avoid placing a turned-on phone next to your pacemaker implant. For instance, don’t carry the phone in a shirt or jacket pocket that rests over the pacemaker. Dr. Krebs says cell phones should be kept at least 6 inches away from a pacemaker.
  • Proper distance. Hold the phone to the ear opposite the side that your pacemaker is implanted, to add extra distance between the pacemaker and the phone. Likewise, you should keep ear buds and headphones for cell phones or music players no lower than your ears. Studies have shown earphones placed very close to a pacemaker have a strong enough emission to cause interference, Dr. Krebs says.

Pacemakers allow millions of individuals to live full, healthy lives and to engage in activities such as light exercise. Understanding the risks associated with electromagnetic interference and taking steps to avoid it will help your pacemaker operate as it was.

“Technology around us is always growing, but thankfully it is also changing to meet the needs of cardiac devices such as pacemakers,” Dr. Krebs says. “We have seen manufacturers certainly come through with ways of reducing the magnetic exposure to pacemakers and shielding it from as much electromagnetic interference as possible. Still, individuals need to understand that there is always the risk for interference and so the best defense is behavior or lifestyle modification to accommodate the technology around them.”

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Mark Krebs, MD

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