This booklet is intended for use by patients and their families who wish to understand more about pacemakers. The information contained within this booklet is meant only as a rough guide and is not exhaustive, so please feel free to ask questions at your pre-op assessment appointment or next follow-up check.
The main function of the heart is to pump blood and oxygen around your body to all of your vital organs. It has four chambers, two at the top (the right and left atria) and two at the bottom (the right and left ventricles).
The electrical system of the heart
The conduction system carries electrical impulses throughout your heart, causing it to beat. The conduction system permits the electrical impulse to reach all parts of your heart at the right time, so that the heartbeat is coordinated and occurs at a normal rate.
Why do I need a pacemaker?
There are several reasons why people have pacemakers implanted; most people have an abnormality in the electrical conduction system of the heart. This can cause the heart to beat too slowly, too quickly or irregularly and may cause symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, fainting or may just be noted during a routine check-up or pre-op assessment. These rhythm disturbances have many causes - the most common being:
- Hereditary defects (conditions passed down through family),
- Certain illnesses,
- Some cardiac drugs,
- Secondary to heart attacks,
- The aging process.
- Sometimes the exact cause is not known.
Your doctor, Cardiac Physiologist, or the nurses on the ward will be able to tell you specifically why you need a pacemaker and what type of pacemaker will be/has been implanted.
A pacemaker consists of two major parts: the generator and the lead.
The generator is a tiny, sealed box containing electronic circuitry and a battery. The battery life of most pacemaker generators today is seven to ten years. This can be affected by a number of factors but nothing that you can control yourself. The lead is a flexible insulated electrical wire. One end is attached to the generator and the other end is passed via a vein into your heart. You may have one, two or three leads depending on the type of pacemaker being implanted.
What are the different types of pacemakers?
Single chamber pacemaker – this will pace the right atrium or right ventricle. Only one pacing lead is used.
Dual chamber pacemaker – both the right atrium and right ventricle of the heart are paced. This requires two pacing leads.
Bi-ventricular pacemaker – in some cases, your doctor may feel you will benefit from both ventricles being paced. This will be done using a bi-ventricular pacemaker. This improves the ability of the heart to pump and improves cardiac output. This requires three pacing leads.
Single pass VDD pacemaker – This is a special type of pacemaker that has only one lead, but can sense in the top chamber of your heart and pace accordingly in the bottom chamber of the heart.
The type of pacemaker chosen to treat your condition will be dependent on your heart condition.
Preparation for the procedure
Eating and drinking
If your procedure is in the morning you can have an early light breakfast, before 6:30am. Then nil-by-mouth from 6:30am, however you can have water right up until the procedure, as you desire. If your procedure is in the afternoon you will need to be nil-by-mouth from 10:00am. You are able to have water after this time, as you desire. You can eat and drink as normal after the procedure.
You will have a Cardiology pre-op assessment carried out prior to your procedure. At this appointment your medication will be discussed. Continue with all medication until your pre-op appointment. Advice will be given, if you are required to omit medication prior to your procedure.
The procedure and any associated risks (see below) and implications will be explained. You will also be asked to sign a consent form.
Once in the procedure lab you will be asked to lie relatively flat on a narrow x-ray table.
In the majority of cases, the pacemaker will be placed on your non-dominant side (i.e. the opposite side to the one you write with). You may need to be shaved in the upper chest area.
Before the procedure starts, the doctor will clean the skin with some antiseptic solution. You will then be draped with sterile drapes and it is important to keep your arms by your side after this point to avoid contamination.
The procedure is normally carried out under local anesthetic, so you will be awake during the case and the area will be numbed with the anaesthetic. You may feel a bit of pushing in this area, but not pain. If you feel pain, let the operator know.
If you are feeling a little anxious about having a pacemaker you may be given a mild sedation.
A small incision is then made, and a pocket formed for the pacemaker to sit in. A lead will then be passed along a vein into your heart using X-ray imaging and then connected to the generator (pacemaker).
The wound is then sutured with dissolvable stitches. The wound will be covered with a dressing. You will then be taken to recovery for a short while and moved to a ward overnight or returned to the ward you were on.
The procedure can take between 40 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the number of pacing leads and ease of access.
After the procedure
The wound might feel a bit tender and bruised for a couple of weeks after the implant. This is normal and if necessary painkillers can be taken. The wound site should be kept clean and dry for 7 to 10 days. After this time, you can remove the dressing. Allow the paper stitches to fall off on their own, when ready to.
It is important that you are careful with the arm that is on the same side as the pacemaker. It is important to keep the arm mobile but please do not raise the arm above shoulder height or lift anything heavy for 6 weeks post implant of your pacemaker. This is because extra tissue grows around the lead in your heart and over time, this is what holds the lead in place.
Until this tissue has formed there is a slight risk that the lead may become dislodged. If this happens the wound will need to be re-opened and the lead re-positioned. Please ask for advice if you are unsure how to use your arm.
Before you leave hospital you will have the pacemaker checked and a chest x-ray of the pacemaker and leads.
You will be given a pacemaker I.D. information sheet at this check. This identifies you as a patient with a pacemaker. It contains all the information about your pacemaker and lead(s) as well as information about your Cardiologist and GP. This I.D information Sheet should be kept on your person at all times.
Are there any risks associated with the procedure?
As with any procedure there are some small risks associated with having a pacemaker fitted. Your doctor can discuss these more thoroughly with you. Generally the most common risks are:
- Infection to the wound - You will be given antibiotics after your pacemaker is fitted to reduce this risk.
- Lead displacement - there is a very slight risk that the wire may move from its original position (become displaced).
- Pneumothorax - On very rare occasions the lung may be perforated during the implant, this causes air to leak from the lungs into the chest. The follow-up chest X-ray after your implant would pick this up.
- Pain / discomfort / bruising - Some bruising can occur, as the skin has been stretched to accommodate the pacemaker. You may also feel some discomfort around the wound site.
Once the wound has completely healed, you can largely return to a completely normal life. The pacemaker is periodically checked to ensure the device is operational and performing appropriately.
The “follow-up” for pacemakers generally consists of a check 24-hours post implant, followed by a six-week check (also a wound check) and a yearly, 6 monthly or 3 monthly check, depending on the age of the pacemaker.
The check will usually take 15-20 minutes. It is important to remember that these appointments are separate from other appointments and only for pacemaker follow-up, you should also keep any appointments you receive to see the cardiologist.
When you come for a follow-up appointment your heart rate will be monitored. The pacemeker will be interrogated electronically with an external device that the physiologist places over your chest. If you have had any symptoms since your last check let the physiologist know. During your check you may feel your heart beat slightly differently - perhaps a bit faster or slower. If at any time you become uncomfortable, you should inform the physiologist. The pacemaker may also be adjusted in order for you to get optimal performance.
At the end of the check you will be informed if there are any problems and will be told when your next appointment will be.
Please make a note of this date. If you require transport, you will need to book this yourself, a few weeks prior to your appointment, but this will be explained in the letter you receive.
Do’s and dont’s
- Inform all medical personnel that you have a pacemaker. Some hospital equipment, including equipment used in surgery, may interfere with pacemakers. Some medical procedures may require the use of antibiotics to be administered before the procedure. Some standard medical procedures such as the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) may be ruled out by the patient having a pacemaker. This can be discussed with the requesting doctor.
- Carry your pacemaker I.D information sheet with you at all times and present it at hospital appointments when necessary.
- Notify the DVLA and your car insurance company (if you drive) that you have a pacemaker. This is a legal requirement. It should not affect your premium costs. You can access the DVLA guidelines on: www.direct.gov.uk/en/ Motoring/DriverLicensing /MedicalRulesForDrivers/ DG_100 10623
- Inform you GP or pacing clinic if the wound site becomes red and inflamed, or if you feel unwell with a fever, or if you have oozing from the site.
- Hold your mobile phone on the opposite ear.
- Notify airport security that you have a pacemaker if you are travelling abroad.
- Keep all follow-up appointments. If for any reason you can’t make one, call and we can re-arrange your appointment.
- Contact your GP as normal if you feel unwell. They will be able to treat you and will contact us if they suspect a pacemaker problem.
- Contact your GP if your presenting symptoms return once you have had a pacemaker fitted.
- Avoid any strenuous activity for about six weeks after the pacemaker has been fitted. After that, you can continue or start most activities and sports.
- Don’t drive until you have had your pacemaker checked at the six-week check. If this is a problem you can discuss this with the cardiac physiologist at your 24 hour check.
- Don’t lift your pacemaker arm above shoulder height for six weeks.
- Don’t carry your mobile phone in a shirt pocket over your device.
- Don’t carry out arc welding.
- Avoid strong magnets.
- Avoid some massage chairs.
- Any queries about what you need to avoid or can do, please call the pacing clinic on: 0117 414 0791
References and further information
Pacemaker web site: www.pacemaker.com
St Jude Medical: www.sjm.com
NHS Constitution - information on your rights and responsibilities: www.nhs.uk/aboutnhs/constitution
Living with a pacemaker and lifestyle considerations
Regular exercise is beneficial for most people. It is advised that you abstain from exercise until your six-week check. After that when you begin exercising, start gradually. You will not be able to play golf or swim until you have had your six-week check.
Modern pacemakers have been designed with modern life in mind and are usually not affected by common electrical gadgets such as hairdryers, washing machines, TVs etc. The use of a modern microwave oven is fine as long as it is in a good state of repair.
If you or the individual you are caring for need support reading this leaflet please ask a member of staff for advice.
© North Bristol NHS Trust. This edition published June 2021. Review due June 2023. NBT002323