Pacemakers

Pacemakers can be used to treat slow or irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias. Find out what's involved in getting a pacemaker and how having one may affect your life.

Your heart beats regularly and at different rates depending on your body's needs. This is controlled by your heart's electrical conduction system

A pacemaker is sometimes used to correct slow or irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias. These arrhythmias may cause you to feel light-headed, breathless or even experience black-outs. If your heart rate is too slow, the pacemaker will send an electrical signal to the heart muscle to start a heartbeat. You are unlikely to feel your pacemaker when it activates so don't let this worry you. When your heart is beating normally, the pacemaker will not be activated. 

What is a pacemaker?

Pacemakers are made up of a long-lasting battery and an electronic circuit in a metal case that sits under your skin. The pacemaker is connected to your heart muscle by one or two leads. Modern pacemakers can be very reliable and comfortable.

Having a pacemaker can greatly improve your quality of life and for some people it can be life-saving. A pacemaker can relieve some arrhythmia symptoms, such as fatigue and fainting. A pacemaker may help a person with abnormal heart rhythms to resume a more active lifestyle.

There are several types of pacemaker available. Together with your doctor, ask about the options and talk about what may work best for you.

Your doctor can refer you to hospital to have a pacemaker fitted.

There are several steps to the procedure:

  1. You may be given a light sedative to help you relax
  2. The pacemaker leads are inserted into a vein below your collarbone and passed along this vein into your heart
  3. The leads are then attached to the inside of the heart wall
  4. The leads are tested and connected to the pacemaker
  5. The pacemaker is then implanted under your skin, below your left or right shoulder

The entire procedure usually takes about one hour, although this can vary. You’ll usually stay overnight in hospital and your pacemaker will be checked thoroughly before you leave. You may experience some discomfort and bruising around your pacemaker site, but serious complications from pacemakers are very unusual. 

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) medical guidelines state that you must not drive a car for two weeks after getting a pacemaker. You will need an assessment by a specialist to check on your condition before you return to driving.

Over four to six weeks following the procedure, you will be able to slowly build up to your normal living activities. It’s normal to feel tired for the first few days, but most people find that they are able to get back to their normal lifestyle quickly.

  • It takes a few weeks for the pacemaker wires to become fully secure and for the discomfort to go away
  • After two weeks you will be allowed to drive again
  • After four to six weeks you will be able to start lifting heavier items and lifting your arm above shoulder-height. 

After getting a pacemaker you will be given an ID card for your pacemaker. It is important to carry this with you at all times, along with a list of your medications. Be prepared to show your ID card if you need to walk through a metal detector (for example, at an airport). You may like to consider getting a Medic Alert bracelet. 

You will have regular pacemaker clinic appointments. At each appointment, your pacemaker will be checked to make sure it is continuing to work properly.

Before having any treatment, you should advise all health professionals that you have a pacemaker. You may need to have a pacemaker check before and after some procedures or treatments.

You should be able to use a cellphone, but to keep you safe please make sure you keep it at least 15 cm (six inches) away from the pacemaker.

Grounded home electrical devices such as microwaves, TV's and garage door openers have little or no effect on pacemakers, so these should be safe to use.

It is a good idea to check the manufacturer's brochure of any devices you would like to use, and ask the staff at your pacemaker clinic about anything you are unsure about.

While most electrical appliances will not affect your pacemaker, it is recommended that you avoid the following equipment as it may interfere with the pacemaker:

  • Medical equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), lithotripsy or radiotherapy
  • Magnetic bracelets and mattresses or chairs
  • Diathermy / TENX machines used by physiotherapists and during surgery
  • Electro-cautery and ultrasonic scaling equipment used by dentists
  • Electrolysis for hair removal
  • Working on car ignition systems
  • Electric arc welders
  • Close proximity to high power radar or electrical installations.

If a powerful electrical device makes you dizzy, step away from the device. 

Most pacemaker batteries last between five and ten years, but this depends on the type of pacemaker and how often it is activated. At each pacemaker clinic appointment the battery will be checked.

Replacing the battery requires a local anaesthetic and is generally a very brief procedure in hospital. Note that you are not allow to drive for two days after a pacemaker battery replacement.

For more information about what to expect with getting and living with a pacemaker, explore our resource about pacemakers.

Get the pacemaker resource