Doctor Decoded: What’s a Pacemaker?

If you have an irregular heartbeat, a pacemaker may help.

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Your doctor is suggesting a pacemaker for your heart. You’ve probably heard the word before, but you might not know exactly what it is. To put it simply, it's an implantable device that helps regulate your heartbeat.

The Importance of a Regular Heartbeat

Before you can understand the purpose of a pacemaker, you have to understand the normal heartbeat. Your body needs a strong and regular heartbeat. This helps pump blood throughout your body. Blood carries oxygen and other nutrients to tissues around your body, which allows them to function optimally.

Each heartbeat is created through the efforts of the sinoatrial node and the four chambers of the heart. The sinoatrial node triggers the beat by sending an electrical impulse. This signals to the heart chambers that it’s time to contract. The impulse and the contractions lead to a force that pumps the blood forward.

If anything in this action malfunctions, your heart may beat irregularly. An abnormal heartbeat is called arrhythmia. The heart may beat erratically (atrial fibrillation), too quickly (tachycardia), or too slowly (bradycardia). These irregularities can affect blood flow and lead to other health problems. Learn more about arrhythmia here.

How a Pacemaker Helps the Heart

To treat arrhythmia and other heart problems, your doctor may suggest a pacemaker. A pacemaker is a tiny device that a doctor implants under the collarbone. Tiny wires attach the device to the heart. These wires allow the pacemaker to electrically stimulate the heart to contract. Basically, it mimics the job of the sinoatrial node.

Pacemakers may sound intimidating, but the implantation is actually a minor surgery. Once it’s there, you can’t actually feel the pacing activity, just like you don’t feel your sinoatrial node at work. In many cases, a pacemaker only kicks in when your heart needs it (i.e., if it starts to beat irregularly).

Additionally, you can live a pretty normal life with a pacemaker. You can be physically active, take baths and showers, fly on planes, have an active sex life, and more. That said, there are a few things you’ll have to keep in mind, such as letting the TSA agent know you have a pacemaker before screening, or avoiding strong electrical fields. These are things your doctor will go over with you when you are getting the device.

Still nervous? Pacemakers help over a million people with arrhythmia and other heart conditions around the world as of 2016, according to Statista. You might even know people who have one, without even realizing it. Talk to your doctor to learn more about living with a pacemaker and what to expect.