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Heart Rate Problems: Should I Get a Pacemaker?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Heart Rate Problems: Should I Get a Pacemaker?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Get a pacemaker.
  • Don't get a pacemaker.

This decision aid is NOT for people with heart failure. The decision for heart failure patients may involve a special type of pacemaker (cardiac resynchronization therapy) and may raise other issues to think about.

Key points to remember

  • A pacemaker can help you feel better so you can return to your daily activities.
  • A pacemaker sends electrical pulses to your heart to help it work better. You can't feel the pulses.
  • If you get a pacemaker, you may still need to take medicines. You'll also need to follow a healthy lifestyle to help your heart. Eat heart-healthy foods, and don't smoke.
  • Heart experts have guidelines about who might need a pacemaker. Talk to your doctor about the reasons that you might need one. For example, a pacemaker may be a good choice if your heart rate is very slow and you have symptoms like dizziness or fainting.
  • There can be problems from the procedure to implant a pacemaker. You could get an infection where the pacemaker was placed. Most pacemakers have wires (called leads) that connect the pacemaker to your heart. These wires can move from the spot where they were placed. Or the pacemaker or leads might not work.
FAQs

What is a pacemaker?

Pacemakers are small electrical devices that help control the timing of your heartbeat. The pacemaker sends out mild electrical pulses that keep your heart beating normally.

Most pacemakers are implanted under the skin of your chest wall. These pacemakers have wires that pass through a vein into the chambers of your heart. Some pacemakers are placed inside the heart and do not have wires.

There are different types of pacemakers, so your doctor will work with you to decide what kind will be best for you.

What heart rate problems can a pacemaker help?

A pacemaker can help restore a normal heart rate when certain problems have damaged the heart's electrical system, which normally keeps your heart beating steadily. These problems include:

  • Changes in the heart that are the result of aging.
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart block (such as an AV block), which is an abnormality in the way electricity passes through the heart's normal electrical pathways.

Pacemakers allow people to return to normal, active lives. Most people have very few limitations, if any.

How is a pacemaker placed?

Most pacemakers are surgically implanted under the skin of the chest.

The procedure to implant a pacemaker is considered minor surgery. It can usually be done using local anesthesia. Your doctor will make a small incision in your chest wall just below your collarbone. The doctor puts the leads in a vein and threads them to the heart. Then your doctor connects the leads to the pacemaker. Your doctor programs the pacemaker and then puts it in your chest and closes the incision. You may be able to see a little bump under the skin where the pacemaker is placed.

Some pacemakers don't have leads that connect to the heart. These leadless pacemakers are placed directly inside the heart.

To implant a leadless pacemaker, the doctor uses a thin tube called a catheter. The pacemaker is placed inside the catheter. He or she puts the catheter into a blood vessel in your groin. You will get a shot to numb the skin where the catheter goes in. Then the doctor moves the catheter through the blood vessel to a lower chamber of your heart. The doctor moves the pacemaker out of the catheter. He or she attaches the pacemaker to the heart tissue. Then the catheter is removed from your body.

Most people spend the night in the hospital, just to make sure that the device is working and that there are no problems from the surgery. But sometimes the procedure is done as an outpatient procedure, which means you don't need to stay overnight in the hospital.

What are the risks?

There are several risks to getting a pacemaker. But risks vary for each person. And risks vary based on the type of pacemaker you get. The chance of most problems is low.

The procedure to implant a pacemaker is safe, and most people do well afterward. Afterward, you will see your doctor regularly to get your pacemaker checked and to make sure you don't have any problems.

During the procedure. If problems happen during the procedure, doctors likely can fix them right away. Examples include:

  • A lung could collapse (pneumothorax). This happens if air builds up in the space between the lung and the chest wall. But a pneumothorax can be treated and people recover well. This problem may happen about 1 to 5 times out of a 100.footnote 1
  • A tear in the heart could happen. Or a person might need emergency medicine or surgery. Based on rates of complications from patients, these problems happen about 1 time out of 100. So about 99 times out of 100, these problems do not happen.footnote 2

After the procedure. Problems after the procedure can be minor, like mild pain, or serious, like an infection. But your doctor can solve most of these problems. And most people do not have long-term issues with their pacemakers.

Problems include:

  • Pain, bleeding, or bruising soon after the procedure.
  • Blood clots in your arms, which cause a lot of swelling.
  • Infection in your chest near the pacemaker. An infection might happen about 1 time out of 100. This means that about 99 times out of 100 there is no infection.footnote 3
  • Device problems that need another procedure to fix them. For example, this might happen if a pacemaker lead breaks or a lead moves out of place.

Daily precautions. You'll need to use certain electric devices with caution. Some electric devices have a strong electromagnetic field. This field can keep your pacemaker from working right for a short time. Check with your doctor about what you need to avoid and what you need to keep a short distance away from your pacemaker. Many household and office electronics do not affect your pacemaker.

Why might your doctor recommend a pacemaker for a heart rate problem?

Your doctor might recommend that you get a pacemaker if:

  • You have a problem with your heart rate that could be helped by a pacemaker.
  • You have trouble doing everyday activities, or you can't do them at all.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Get a pacemaker Get a pacemaker
  • You will have minor surgery or a procedure to have the pacemaker put in. The doctor will numb the area so you won't feel pain.
  • You may spend the night in the hospital to make sure that the device is working and that there are no problems.
  • You will need regular checkups to make sure that the pacemaker is working and to adjust the pacing, if needed.
  • You may still need to take medicines for your heart rate problem.
  • You still have to eat healthy foods and to exercise as your doctor advises.
  • A pacemaker can help you feel better so you can be more active.
  • If you have a certain type of heart block, a pacemaker may help prevent a dangerously slow heart rate and may help you live longer.
  • Problems can happen during the procedure to place the pacemaker or soon after the procedure. One example is a lung collapsing.
  • There might be problems with the pacemaker. Examples include the leads breaking or an infection.
  • You need to avoid devices that have strong magnetic or electrical fields, because they could stop the pacemaker from working. But most everyday appliances and electronic devices are safe.
  • You will need surgery to replace the battery, which may last about 8 to 10 years.
Don't get a pacemaker Don't get a pacemaker
  • You take medicines for whatever disease is causing your heart rate problem.
  • You eat healthy foods, and you exercise as your doctor advises.
  • You see your doctor regularly to check your symptoms and how your medicine is working.
  • You won't have the risk of infection or other problems from the surgery.
  • You won't have to think about safety around devices that could stop your pacemaker from working.
  • Your symptoms could get worse. This would limit your ability to do your daily activities.
  • You might be at risk for fainting or falling, which could be dangerous.

Personal stories about considering a pacemaker

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I have a hard time getting my chores done around the house or going grocery shopping. I get really short of breath after walking for a few minutes. My doctor says a pacemaker could help me feel better.

Jack, age 66

My doctor says my heart rate is slow. But I can still work and take my daily walks with no problem. I'm not ready to get a pacemaker. I'll keep taking my medicine and following my diet.

Serena, age 55

I get dizzy sometimes, and my doctor says I have a slow heart rate that could lead to serious problems. She says a pacemaker can help keep that from happening. It's minor surgery, so I'm choosing the pacemaker.

Shaun, age 75

I'm not very active, and I'm really afraid of surgery and of having something mechanical in my body. I don't want to get a pacemaker.

James, age 83

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to get a pacemaker

Reasons not to get a pacemaker

I want to feel better so that I can do my daily activities.

I'm not having too much trouble doing my daily activities.

More important
Equally important
More important

I don't mind having a device in my body.

I don't like the idea of having a device in my body.

More important
Equally important
More important

My medicines aren't controlling my symptoms anymore.

My symptoms aren't getting worse.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about risks from surgery, because they're small.

I don't want to take a chance that something could go wrong during surgery.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Getting a pacemaker

NOT getting a pacemaker

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1, If I get a pacemaker, I still need to follow a healthy lifestyle.
2, I don't need a pacemaker if I don't have any symptoms.
3, A pacemaker may help symptoms caused by my heart rate problem.

Decide what's next

1,Do you understand the options available to you?
2,Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
3,Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision  

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts  

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act  

Patient choices

Credits and References

Credits
AuthorHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerMartin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerJohn M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Primary Medical ReviewerCaroline S. Rhoads MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerHeather Quinn MD - Family Medicine

References
Citations
  1. Res JCJ, et al.(2004). Pneumothorax resulting from subclavian puncture: a complication of permanent pacemaker lead implantation. Netherlands Heart Journal, 12(3): 101–105.
  2. Poole JE, et al.(2010). Complication rates associated with pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator generator replacements and upgrade procedures. Circulation, 122(16): 1553–1561. DOI:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.976076. Accessed December 15, 2016.
  3. Baddour LM, et al.(2010). Update on cardiovascular implantable electronic device infections and their management. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 121(3):458–477.
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Heart Rate Problems: Should I Get a Pacemaker?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the Facts

Your options

  • Get a pacemaker.
  • Don't get a pacemaker.

This decision aid is NOT for people with heart failure. The decision for heart failure patients may involve a special type of pacemaker (cardiac resynchronization therapy) and may raise other issues to think about.

Key points to remember

  • A pacemaker can help you feel better so you can return to your daily activities.
  • A pacemaker sends electrical pulses to your heart to help it work better. You can't feel the pulses.
  • If you get a pacemaker, you may still need to take medicines. You'll also need to follow a healthy lifestyle to help your heart. Eat heart-healthy foods, and don't smoke.
  • Heart experts have guidelines about who might need a pacemaker. Talk to your doctor about the reasons that you might need one. For example, a pacemaker may be a good choice if your heart rate is very slow and you have symptoms like dizziness or fainting.
  • There can be problems from the procedure to implant a pacemaker. You could get an infection where the pacemaker was placed. Most pacemakers have wires (called leads) that connect the pacemaker to your heart. These wires can move from the spot where they were placed. Or the pacemaker or leads might not work.
FAQs

What is a pacemaker?

Pacemakers are small electrical devices that help control the timing of your heartbeat. The pacemaker sends out mild electrical pulses that keep your heart beating normally.

Most pacemakers are implanted under the skin of your chest wall. These pacemakers have wires that pass through a vein into the chambers of your heart. Some pacemakers are placed inside the heart and do not have wires.

There are different types of pacemakers, so your doctor will work with you to decide what kind will be best for you.

What heart rate problems can a pacemaker help?

A pacemaker can help restore a normal heart rate when certain problems have damaged the heart's electrical system , which normally keeps your heart beating steadily. These problems include:

  • Changes in the heart that are the result of aging.
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart block (such as an AV block), which is an abnormality in the way electricity passes through the heart's normal electrical pathways.

Pacemakers allow people to return to normal, active lives. Most people have very few limitations, if any.

How is a pacemaker placed?

Most pacemakers are surgically implanted under the skin of the chest.

The procedure to implant a pacemaker is considered minor surgery. It can usually be done using local anesthesia. Your doctor will make a small incision in your chest wall just below your collarbone. The doctor puts the leads in a vein and threads them to the heart. Then your doctor connects the leads to the pacemaker. Your doctor programs the pacemaker and then puts it in your chest and closes the incision. You may be able to see a little bump under the skin where the pacemaker is placed.

Some pacemakers don't have leads that connect to the heart. These leadless pacemakers are placed directly inside the heart.

To implant a leadless pacemaker, the doctor uses a thin tube called a catheter. The pacemaker is placed inside the catheter. He or she puts the catheter into a blood vessel in your groin. You will get a shot to numb the skin where the catheter goes in. Then the doctor moves the catheter through the blood vessel to a lower chamber of your heart. The doctor moves the pacemaker out of the catheter. He or she attaches the pacemaker to the heart tissue. Then the catheter is removed from your body.

Most people spend the night in the hospital, just to make sure that the device is working and that there are no problems from the surgery. But sometimes the procedure is done as an outpatient procedure, which means you don't need to stay overnight in the hospital.

What are the risks?

There are several risks to getting a pacemaker. But risks vary for each person. And risks vary based on the type of pacemaker you get. The chance of most problems is low.

The procedure to implant a pacemaker is safe, and most people do well afterward. Afterward, you will see your doctor regularly to get your pacemaker checked and to make sure you don't have any problems.

During the procedure. If problems happen during the procedure, doctors likely can fix them right away. Examples include:

  • A lung could collapse (pneumothorax). This happens if air builds up in the space between the lung and the chest wall. But a pneumothorax can be treated and people recover well. This problem may happen about 1 to 5 times out of a 100.1
  • A tear in the heart could happen. Or a person might need emergency medicine or surgery. Based on rates of complications from patients, these problems happen about 1 time out of 100. So about 99 times out of 100, these problems do not happen.2

After the procedure. Problems after the procedure can be minor, like mild pain, or serious, like an infection. But your doctor can solve most of these problems. And most people do not have long-term issues with their pacemakers.

Problems include:

  • Pain, bleeding, or bruising soon after the procedure.
  • Blood clots in your arms, which cause a lot of swelling.
  • Infection in your chest near the pacemaker. An infection might happen about 1 time out of 100. This means that about 99 times out of 100 there is no infection.3
  • Device problems that need another procedure to fix them. For example, this might happen if a pacemaker lead breaks or a lead moves out of place.

Daily precautions. You'll need to use certain electric devices with caution. Some electric devices have a strong electromagnetic field. This field can keep your pacemaker from working right for a short time. Check with your doctor about what you need to avoid and what you need to keep a short distance away from your pacemaker. Many household and office electronics do not affect your pacemaker.

Why might your doctor recommend a pacemaker for a heart rate problem?

Your doctor might recommend that you get a pacemaker if:

  • You have a problem with your heart rate that could be helped by a pacemaker.
  • You have trouble doing everyday activities, or you can't do them at all.

2. Compare your options

  Get a pacemakerDon't get a pacemaker
What is usually involved?
  • You will have minor surgery or a procedure to have the pacemaker put in. The doctor will numb the area so you won't feel pain.
  • You may spend the night in the hospital to make sure that the device is working and that there are no problems.
  • You will need regular checkups to make sure that the pacemaker is working and to adjust the pacing, if needed.
  • You may still need to take medicines for your heart rate problem.
  • You still have to eat healthy foods and to exercise as your doctor advises.
  • You take medicines for whatever disease is causing your heart rate problem.
  • You eat healthy foods, and you exercise as your doctor advises.
  • You see your doctor regularly to check your symptoms and how your medicine is working.
What are the benefits?
  • A pacemaker can help you feel better so you can be more active.
  • If you have a certain type of heart block, a pacemaker may help prevent a dangerously slow heart rate and may help you live longer.
  • You won't have the risk of infection or other problems from the surgery.
  • You won't have to think about safety around devices that could stop your pacemaker from working.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Problems can happen during the procedure to place the pacemaker or soon after the procedure. One example is a lung collapsing.
  • There might be problems with the pacemaker. Examples include the leads breaking or an infection.
  • You need to avoid devices that have strong magnetic or electrical fields, because they could stop the pacemaker from working. But most everyday appliances and electronic devices are safe.
  • You will need surgery to replace the battery, which may last about 8 to 10 years.
  • Your symptoms could get worse. This would limit your ability to do your daily activities.
  • You might be at risk for fainting or falling, which could be dangerous.

Personal stories

Personal stories about considering a pacemaker

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I have a hard time getting my chores done around the house or going grocery shopping. I get really short of breath after walking for a few minutes. My doctor says a pacemaker could help me feel better."

— Jack, age 66

"My doctor says my heart rate is slow. But I can still work and take my daily walks with no problem. I'm not ready to get a pacemaker. I'll keep taking my medicine and following my diet."

— Serena, age 55

"I get dizzy sometimes, and my doctor says I have a slow heart rate that could lead to serious problems. She says a pacemaker can help keep that from happening. It's minor surgery, so I'm choosing the pacemaker."

— Shaun, age 75

"I'm not very active, and I'm really afraid of surgery and of having something mechanical in my body. I don't want to get a pacemaker."

— James, age 83

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to get a pacemaker

Reasons not to get a pacemaker

I want to feel better so that I can do my daily activities.

I'm not having too much trouble doing my daily activities.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

I don't mind having a device in my body.

I don't like the idea of having a device in my body.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

My medicines aren't controlling my symptoms anymore.

My symptoms aren't getting worse.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about risks from surgery, because they're small.

I don't want to take a chance that something could go wrong during surgery.

       
More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

  
       
More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Getting a pacemaker

NOT getting a pacemaker

       
Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. If I get a pacemaker, I still need to follow a healthy lifestyle.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. You still need to follow a healthy lifestyle. Eat heart-healthy foods, and don't smoke.

2. I don't need a pacemaker if I don't have any symptoms.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Some people with no symptoms are still at risk of getting a dangerously slow heart rate in the future. A pacemaker may be used to help prevent that.

3. A pacemaker may help symptoms caused by my heart rate problem.

  • True
  • False
  • I'm not sure
That's right. Pacemakers allow people to return to normal, active lives.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

     
Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.
 
Credits
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerMartin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerJohn M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Primary Medical ReviewerCaroline S. Rhoads MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical ReviewerHeather Quinn MD - Family Medicine

References
Citations
  1. Res JCJ, et al.(2004). Pneumothorax resulting from subclavian puncture: a complication of permanent pacemaker lead implantation. Netherlands Heart Journal, 12(3): 101–105.
  2. Poole JE, et al.(2010). Complication rates associated with pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator generator replacements and upgrade procedures. Circulation, 122(16): 1553–1561. DOI:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.976076. Accessed December 15, 2016.
  3. Baddour LM, et al.(2010). Update on cardiovascular implantable electronic device infections and their management. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 121(3):458–477.

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