What is a Pacemaker?

Pacemakers have changed over the yearA pacemaker is a small implantable device that is placed in the upper chest and is connected to the heart by means of one or more small, thin, insulated wires known as leads.

A pacemaker can be adjusted after it is implanted in the body. A physician or another healthcare professional can communicate with an implanted pacemaker by means of a tabletop computer called the programmer. Using the programmer, the device’s many settings can be adjusted to meet the individual needs of the patient.

Pacemakers today are actually miniature computers. They can store information about the heart and its activities, and this material can be downloaded using the programmer.

Many pacemakers today can be checked remotely, that is, there are ways for the clinic to check on the device by phone or Internet without the patient having to come to the office.

Pacemakers have continued to downsize over the years and today are slim, rounded devices about the size of a pocket watch (but thinner and lighter). But they are more powerful than ever, thanks to advances in chip technology. The largest single thing in the pacemaker housing is the battery. The battery is a lithium-iodide cell that provides many years of reliable service. Depending on the pacemaker and how much you use it and how it is programmed, a battery can last three to ten years or even more. When the battery wears down, the pacemaker will notify the doctor through the programmer (this is why it’s important to go to all of your checkups–your pacemaker sometimes has important information to tell the doctor).

Although doctors sometimes talk about “battery replacement” or “battery change-out,” the fact is that batteries cannot be taken out of the pacemaker. When the battery wears down, you get a new pacemaker. In most cases, the leads are left in place and just removed from the old device and plugged into the new device. This procedure, sometimes called a device revision, is not as time consuming or difficult as the first implant.

Pacemakers deliver electricity to the heart; they do not deliver any medications or substances that the body is not familiar with. For people with certain kinds of rhythm disorders, a pacemaker is the only therapy that can help, in other words, pacemakers often can help people who have heart problems that cannot be treated well with drugs.

If you get a pacemaker, it is likely you will have one for the rest of your life. The heart does not repair itself electrically. Millions of people all over the world have benefited from pacemaker technology.

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