Living With a Pacemaker or Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)

Living with a pacemaker or ICD:

With advances in technology, implanted pacemakers and ICDs generally last several years (depending upon usage and the type of device) and, in most cases, allow a child to lead a normal life. In addition, advances in device circuitry  and insulation have reduced the interference risk from machinery, such as microwaves, which in the past may have altered or otherwise affected these surgically implanted cardiac devices. Even so, certain precautions must be taken into consideration when a child has an implanted pacemaker or ICD.

What precautions should be taken with an implanted pacemaker or ICD?

Your child should wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace to let others know about the device in case of emergency. When he/she is old enough to have a wallet, it is a good idea to also carry an ID card. 

According to The American Heart Association and pacemaker manufacturers, the following items have not been shown to alter the function of today's pacemakers or ICDs:

  • microwave ovens
  • kitchen appliances such as blenders, toaster ovens, and electric knives
  • televisions (including the remote control), FM and AM radios, and stereos
  • TV and radio transmitters
  • ham radios and CB radios
  • electric blankets and heating pads
  • electric shavers, hair dryers, curling irons, and other personal care appliances
  • gardening machinery, such as electric trimmers
  • garage door openers
  • metal detectors
  • computers
  • copying and fax machines
  • properly grounded shop tools (except power generators or arc welding equipment)

Currently, cellular phones do not affect the functioning of pacemakers or ICDs. Most devices made today have a filter that allows the use of the majority of cellular phones used throughout the world, including analog and digital technologies. However, new frequencies are being made available for cellular phones by the Federal Communications Commission, and these new frequencies may make pacemakers less reliable. Studies are being done to investigate this further.

Make sure your child uses caution when going through security detectors at airports and government buildings such as courthouses. Although it is generally safe to go through airport security detectors (they will not damage the pacemaker or ICD), inform airport security personnel that your child has a pacemaker before he or she goes through security, as the device may set off the alarm. Also, if your child is selected for a more detailed search, politely remind security that the hand-held metal-detecting wand should NOT be held over the pacemakers for any prolonged period of time (more than a second or two), as the magnet inside the detecting wand may temporarily change the operating mode of a pacemaker. Be prepared to show an identification card or a medical identification bracelet in order to pass through security checkpoints.

The following situations may cause interference with implanted cardiac devices. (Some of the activities mentioned are not appropriate until a child nears adulthood, but may affect older teenagers.) Discuss the following in detail with your child's physician:

  • Avoid working with, holding, or carrying magnets near the pacemaker or ICD.
  • Avoid magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines or other large magnetic fields, since the device's performance can be affected. Also, the rapidly changing magnetic field within the MRI scanner can, in theory, cause heating of the pacemaker leads. In general, there are alternatives to MRI for persons with pacemakers, but if your child's doctor determines that your child absolutely needs an MRI scan, discuss this thoroughly with the cardiologist before proceeding. If the cardiologist and you agree to go ahead, your child should be closely monitored by a cardiologist, with a pacemaker programming device immediately available, during MRI scanning. Also, metal objects are not permitted near MRI machines.
  • Abstain from diathermy (the use of heat in physical therapy to treat muscles).
  • Turn off large motors, such as cars or boats, when working on them, as they may temporarily "confuse" the device. Do not use chain saws, because of the close contact with the motor components.
  • Avoid certain high-voltage or radar machinery, such as arc welders, high-tension wires, radar installations, smelting furnaces, electric steel furnaces, and other high-current industrial equipment. Avoid working in restricted spaces near radio or television transmitting towers and antennas.
  • If your child is having a surgical procedure performed by a surgeon or dentist, tell the surgeon or dentist that your child has a pacemaker or ICD. Some surgical procedures will require that your child's ICD be temporarily turned off or set to a special mode; however, this will be determined by your child's cardiologist. Temporarily changing the mode on your child's pacemaker can be performed noninvasively (no additional surgery is required), but should only be performed by qualified medical personnel. 

Certain medical procedures may occasionally affect the function of the device, but might be performed successfully with some adjustments to the pacemaker or ICD settings. These procedures include the following:

  • extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy (ESWL) - a procedure that dissolves kidney stones.
  • radiofrequency ablation - a procedure that uses radio waves to control irregular heart rhythms.
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) - a device used to relieve acute or chronic pain.
  • therapeutic radiation treatments for cancer

Consult your child's physician before your child undergoes these procedures.

Your child may also have to take antibiotic medication before any medically-invasive procedure to prevent infections that may affect the pacemaker.

Always consult your child's physician if you have any questions concerning the use of certain equipment near your child's pacemaker.

Can my child participate in regular, daily activities with a pacemaker or ICD?

Once the device has been implanted, your child should be able to do the same activities everyone else in their age group is doing: living normally.

However, when involved in a physical, recreational, or sporting activity, a child with a pacemaker or ICD should avoid receiving a blow to the skin over the pacemaker. A blow to the chest or abdomen near the pacemaker or ICD can affect its functioning. Contact sports are usually not recommended for children with pacemakers or ICDs for this reason. If your child does receive a blow to that area, contact your child's physician. Consult your child's physician for activity restrictions.

Always consult your child's physician when he/she feels ill after an activity, or when you have questions about beginning a new activity.

How can I ensure that my child's pacemaker or ICD is working properly?

Although your child's device is built to last several years, always have it checked regularly to ensure that it is working properly. Different physicians may have different schedules for checking devices,and some can be checked in the home using a telephone and special equipment provided by your child's device manufacturer.

Battery life, lead wire condition, and various functions are checked by performing device interrogation. During an interrogation, the device is noninvasively connected to a computer using a magnet and a special machine.

Your physician may ask you to check your child's pulse rate periodically. Report any unusual symptoms, or symptoms similar to those your child had prior to the device insertion, to your child's physician immediately.

Always consult your child's physician for more information, if needed.

What is the pulse?

The pulse rate is a measurement of the heart rate, or the number of times the heart beats per minute. As the heart pushes blood through the arteries, the arteries expand and contract with the flow of the blood, and this can be felt in various points in the body as a pulse. Taking a pulse not only measures the heart rate, but also can indicate the following:

  • heart rhythm (abnormal rhythm may indicate a heart disorder)
  • strength of the pulse (a weak pulse may indicate a fast heartbeat in which some beats are too weak to feel, heart failure, or a low volume of blood in the circulatory system)

Many pacemakers provide varying rates, depending on your child's activity level and other factors. The pulse rate may fluctuate and increase with exercise, illness, injury, and emotions. Girls ages 12 and older and women, in general, tend to have faster heart rates than do boys and men. Athletes, such as runners, who do a lot of cardiovascular conditioning may have slow heart rates and experience no problems.

How to check your child's pulse:

Illustration demonstrating how to take a pulse

As the heart forces blood through the arteries, feel the beats by firmly pressing on the arteries, which are located close to the surface of the skin at certain points of the body. The pulse can be found on the side of the lower neck, on the inside of the elbow, or at the wrist. When taking a pulse:

  • Using the first and second fingertips, press firmly but gently on the arteries until you feel a pulse.
  • Begin counting the pulse when the clock's second hand is on the 12.
  • Count the pulse for 60 seconds (or for 15 seconds and then multiply by four to calculate beats per minute).
  • When counting, do not watch the clock continuously, but concentrate on the beats of the pulse. If you have trouble with this method, try a digital kitchen timer and set it for one minute. Stop counting when the timer alarms.
  • If unsure about your results, ask another person to count for you.
  • It is probably better to check the wrist (radial artery) pulse than the neck (carotid artery) pulse. If you must check a neck pulse, do not press hard on the neck, and never press on both sides of the neck at the same time, as this can cause some people to pass out.

If you are having difficulty in finding your child's pulse, consult your child's physician for additional instruction.

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