Pacemakers And Defibrillators: Which Is the Right Choice For You?

Health Topics

An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, means the heart is beating too quickly, too slowly, or too erratically to circulate oxygenated blood to the rest of the body the way it should. The brain, lungs, and other organs can be damaged if they don’t receive the proper amount of oxygen for extended periods of time, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Several types of arrhythmias can affect different parts of the heart. To treat arrhythmias and keep your heart beating properly, your physician could recommend the use of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) or a pacemaker.

The devices are both implanted under the collarbone through minor surgery, though in the past, inserting either device required a much more extensive surgical procedure.

Pacemakers and ICDs are similar in that they are small, battery-powered, connected to the heart by wires, and function 24 hours a day. However, the reasons for using one device or the other vary.

When To Use an ICD

An ICD is a battery-powered device that tracks your heart rate. Your doctor might recommend an ICD if you have:

  • A heart attack
  • Ventricular arrhythmia
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Long QT syndrome or Brugada syndrome
  • Survived sudden cardiac arrest

An ICD’s role is to prevent death from sudden cardiac arrest. If the ICD recognizes an irregular heart rhythm, it will send either painless impulses or electric shock to the heart to restore the heartbeat to a more normal rhythm. Before an ICD is implanted, your doctor will run necessary tests to rule out any correctable causes of the arrhythmia.

Some newer ICDs can also function as pacemakers.

When To Use a Pacemaker

Unlike ICDs, pacemakers are not solely used for life-threatening conditions. A pacemaker replicates the heart’s natural rhythm and is necessary when the heart is not beating fast enough. A pacemaker constantly stimulates the heart through tiny electrical pulses, rather than in response to a sudden change in heartbeat like an ICD.

Your doctor might recommend a pacemaker if:

  • Your heartbeat is irregular or too slow
  • Your heartbeat stays normal sometimes but often is too fast or too slow

The electric pulses sent by pacemakers can be affected by some appliances in the home and by some medical equipment used by doctors and dentists. Researchers are currently studying whether the frequencies and technologies used in cell phones could also affect pacemakers.

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