What Is a Pacemaker?

A pacemaker is a small device that’s placed in the chest or abdomen to help control abnormal heart rhythms. This device uses electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat at a normal rate.

Pacemakers are used to treat arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs). Arrhythmias are problems with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm.

A heartbeat that’s too fast is called tachycardia (TAK-ih-KAR-de-ah). A heartbeat that’s too slow is called bradycardia (bray-de-KAR-de-ah).

During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body. This can cause symptoms such as fatigue (tiredness), shortness of breath, or fainting. Severe arrhythmias can damage the body’s vital organs and may even cause loss of consciousness or death.

A pacemaker can relieve some arrhythmia symptoms, such as fatigue and fainting. A pacemaker also can help a person who has abnormal heart rhythms resume a more active lifestyle.

Understanding the Heart’s Electrical System

Your heart has its own internal electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat. With each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of your heart to the bottom. As the signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood.

Each electrical signal normally begins in a group of cells called the sinus node or sinoatrial (SA) node. As the signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom, it coordinates the timing of heart cell activity.

First, the heart’s two upper chambers, the atria (AY-tree-uh), contract. This contraction pumps blood into the heart’s two lower chambers, the ventricles (VEN-trih-kuls). The ventricles then contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. The combined contraction of the atria and ventricles is a heartbeat.

For more information about the heart’s electrical system and detailed animations, go to the Health Topics How the Heart Works article.

Overview

Faulty electrical signaling in the heart causes arrhythmias. Pacemakers use low-energy electrical pulses to overcome this faulty electrical signaling. Pacemakers can:

  • Speed up a slow heart rhythm.
  • Help control an abnormal or fast heart rhythm.
  • Make sure the ventricles contract normally if the atria are quivering instead of beating with a normal rhythm (a condition called atrial fibrillation).
  • Coordinate electrical signaling between the upper and lower chambers of the heart.
  • Coordinate electrical signaling between the ventricles. Pacemakers that do this are called cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices. CRT devices are used to treatheart failure.
  • Prevent dangerous arrhythmias caused by a disorder called long QT syndrome.

Pacemakers also can monitor and record your heart’s electrical activity and heart rhythm. Newer pacemakers can monitor your blood temperature, breathing rate, and other factors. They also can adjust your heart rate to changes in your activity.

Pacemakers can be temporary or permanent. Temporary pacemakers are used to treat short-term heart problems, such as a slow heartbeat that’s caused by a heart attack, heart surgery, or an overdose of medicine.

Temporary pacemakers also are used during emergencies. They might be used until your doctor can implant a permanent pacemaker or until a temporary condition goes away. If you have a temporary pacemaker, you’ll stay in a hospital as long as the device is in place.

Permanent pacemakers are used to control long-term heart rhythm problems. This article mainly discusses permanent pacemakers, unless stated otherwise.

Doctors also treat arrhythmias with another device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is similar to a pacemaker. However, besides using low-energy electrical pulses, an ICD also can use high-energy pulses to treat life-threatening arrhythmias.

What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a small device that’s placed in the chest or abdomen. Doctors use the device to help treat irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs).

An ICD uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias, especially those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

SCA is a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating. If the heart stops beating, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. SCA usually causes death if it’s not treated within minutes.

Understanding the Heart’s Electrical System

Your heart has its own internal electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat. With each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of your heart to the bottom. As the signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood.

Each electrical signal normally begins in a group of cells called the sinus node or sinoatrial (SA) node. As a signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom, it coordinates the timing of heart cell activity.

First, the heart’s two upper chambers, the atria (AY-tree-uh), contract. This contraction pumps blood into the heart’s two lower chambers, the ventricles (VEN-trih-kuls). The ventricles then contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. The combined contraction of the atria and ventricles is a heartbeat.

For more information about the heart’s electrical system (including detailed animations), go to the Health Topics How the Heart Works article.

Overview

A problem with any part of the heart’s electrical system can cause an arrhythmia. Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious.

ICDs use electrical pulses or shocks to treat life-threatening arrhythmias that occur in the ventricles (the heart’s lower chambers).

When ventricular arrhythmias occur, the heart can’t pump blood well. You can pass out within seconds and die within minutes if not treated.

To prevent death, the arrhythmia must be treated right away with an electric shock to the heart. This treatment is called defibrillation (de-fib-ri-LA-shun).

An ICD has wires with electrodes on the ends that connect to your heart chambers. The ICD will monitor your heart rhythm. If the device detects an irregular rhythm in your ventricles, it will use low-energy electrical pulses to restore a normal rhythm.

If the low-energy pulses don’t restore your normal heart rhythm, the ICD will switch to high-energy pulses for defibrillation. The device also will switch to high-energy pulses if your ventricles start to quiver rather than contract strongly. The high-energy pulses last only a fraction of a second, but they can be painful.

Doctors also treat arrhythmias with another device called a pacemaker. An ICD is similar to a pacemaker, but has some differences.

Pacemakers give off only low-energy electrical pulses. They’re often used to treat less dangerous heart rhythms, such as those that occur in the upper chambers of your heart. Most new ICDs can act as both pacemakers and defibrillators.

Comparison of an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and a Pacemaker

The image compares an ICD with a pacemaker. Figure A shows the location and general size of an ICD in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest. Figure B shows the location and general size of a pacemaker in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest.

The image compares an ICD with a pacemaker. Figure A shows the location and general size of an ICD in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest. Figure B shows the location and general size of a pacemaker in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest.

People who have heart failure may need a special device called a cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device. The CRT device is able to pace both ventricles at the same time. This allows them to work together and do a better job pumping blood out of the heart. CRT devices that have a defibrillator are called
CRT-D.

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.