Pacemakers 101: Common Questions About Your Heart Device

Your heart’s electrical system sends out signals to your heart muscle, which squeezes to pump blood throughout your body.

If you have a problem with your heart’s electrical system, a pacemaker can help.

A pacemaker helps your heart beat faster, slower, or in a more steady way. This allows your body to get the oxygen and nutrients it needs.

Learn the facts and get answers to some common questions about pacemakers.

Pacemaker FAQ

What is a pacemaker?

A pacemaker is a small device that includes:

  • A computer with electrical circuits that restores your heart’s normal pace.
  • A battery that powers the computer.
  • Wires — called leads — that connect the computer to your heart.

A thin metal box covers the computer and battery. The leads extend out from the box and have sensors at their tips.

How does a pacemaker work?

While your heart beats, the sensors send data to the computer in your pacemaker.

If your heart beats Then
normally, your pacemaker simply monitors the beats.
too fast, too slow, or in an irregular way, the pacemaker’s computer sends out electrical signals to regulate the beats.

Who needs a pacemaker?

Pacemakers treat people who have arrhythmias, or problems with heart rate or rhythm.

The experts at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute specialize in pacemaker implants and management. To learn more, call 1-855-UPMC-HVI.

You may need a pacemaker if you have:

  • Bradycardia — a heartbeat that’s too slow.
  • Heart block — an electrical problem that can happen because of aging.
  • Heart attack or other health problems that affect the heart’s electrical system.
  • Atrial fibrillation — a condition that makes the top and bottom chambers of your heart beat out of rhythm with each other.
  • Syncope, or fainting caused by a slow heartbeat.

Some people may need pacemakers for just a short after having a heart attack or heart surgery. Others need pacemakers for the rest of their lives to help manage ongoing heart problems.

How do doctors implant a pacemaker?

To implant your pacemaker, your doctor will:

  • Give you medicine to help you relax and to numb the implant area.
  • Place a needle into a large vein and thread the leads through the vein into your heart.
  • Make a small cut in your skin and place the pacemaker box under your skin.
  • Connect the wires to the box.
  • Test the pacemaker to make sure it works.

The implant usually takes about two hours, and you can expect to stay in the hospital overnight.

Your health care team will make sure your device is working properly before you go home.

How soon can I get back to my routine?

Your doctor will let you know when you can get back to your normal routine, including:

  • Working
  • Driving
  • Exercising

Most people should avoid strenuous activities and heavy lifting for about one month after the pacemaker implant.

Will I have to make changes to my lifestyle?

Your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes to help manage your heart problem, like:

  • Getting more exercise.
  • Changing your diet.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Finding healthy ways to cope with stress.

You may also need to track your heart rate on a routine basis and take medicines to help manage your condition.

Be sure to follow your treatment plan, and let your doctor know about any changes in how you feel, including symptoms like:

What if my pacemaker stops working?

In most cases, you’ll need to have your pacemaker checked every three to six months to make sure it’s working right.

Pacemaker batteries last about five to eight years. Your doctor will let you know when it’s time to replace them.

What should I do to stay safe with my pacemaker?

People with pacemakers can live very normal lives, but it’s a good idea to keep the following in mind:

  • Keep your pacemaker ID card with you at all times. You may also want to get a medical ID bracelet or necklace that lets others know you have a pacemaker.
  • Always tell your doctors, dentist, and other health care providers that you have a pacemaker. Some types of medical equipment — like MRI machines — can affect how they work.
  • Before going through security at an airport, sports arena, or other venue, let security know that you have a pacemaker.
  • Talk with your doctor about the kinds of home appliances you regularly use. In most cases, household items like microwaves will not affect your pacemaker, but some appliances and equipment can interfere.
  • When talking on your cell phone, hold the phone on the side of your body opposite the pacemaker. Don’t carry your phone in the breast pocket of your shirt or coat.