How does a pacemaker work?
Your heart’s sinus node is your natural pacemaker (located in the upper right chamber of the heart). It sends an electrical impulse to make your heart beat. The job of a pacemaker is to artificially take over the role of your sinus node if it isn’t working properly.
Electrical impulses are sent by the pacemaker to stimulate your heart to contract and produce a heartbeat. Most pacemakers work just when they’re needed – on demand. Some pacemakers send out impulses all of the time. This is called fixed rate.
Pacemakers do not give your heart an electrical shock.
Watch Hilda's story to find out how a pacemaker is implanted.
How are pacemakers fitted?
Pacemakers are fitted under a local anaesthetic with sedation, so you’ll feel very sleepy. It typically takes between one and two hours to have one fitted, but it can take longer if you're having other heart surgery at the same time.
Why do I need a pacemaker?
You may need to have an artificial pacemaker fitted if:
- you have a particular type of heart block – a delay in the electrical signals travelling through the heart, that can make the heart beat too slowly
- your heart is beating too fast and this is not effectively controlled by medication
- you have heart failure, which may cause your heart to pump out of sync.
Having a pacemaker can greatly improve your quality of life and for some people it can be life saving.
Most pacemakers are very reliable and comfortable. They're smaller than an average matchbox and weigh about 20 to 50 grams. A pacemaker sits just under your collarbone and will have one or more leads which are placed into your heart through a vein.
What are the different types of pacemakers?
A pacemaker has a pulse generator – a battery powered electronic circuit – and one or more electrode leads:
- pacemakers with one lead are called single chamber pacemakers
- pacemakers with two leads are called dual chamber pacemakers
- pacemakers with three leads are called biventricular pacemakers.
Your doctor will talk to you about which type of pacemaker is most suitable for you, which will depend on the reasons why you need to have one.
How long will it take to have the pacemaker fitted?
After the pacemaker is fitted, you’ll usually stay overnight in hospital and your pacemaker will be checked thoroughly before you leave. Serious complications from pacemakers are very unusual.
How quickly will I recover after having a pacemaker fitted?
It’s normal to feel tired for a few days after having your pacemaker fitted, but most people find that they're able to get back to their normal lifestyle fairly quickly. You’re not allowed to drive a car for at least a week after your pacemaker is fitted.
Having a pacemaker fitted - Alan's story
Who can I talk to about my pacemaker?
It’s important that you and your family understand why you’re having a pacemaker fitted and what the operation involves. It’s also important that you understand what to expect in hospital before, during and after your operation during your recovery.
You can use the following ways to get support for the emotional effects of living with a pacemaker:
- Talk to your GP about being referred for counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
- Call us on 0300 330 3311 to speak to one of our nurses on our Heart Helpline between 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday.
- Join our online community platform, HealthUnlocked. Members include those who have been affected by the same condition.
Our research: setting the pace
One of the first things we ever did was to provide funding for pacemaker research at St. George's Hospital. It was there in 1961 that cardiologist Aubrey Leatham and ace technician Geoffrey Davies implanted the UK's first internal pacemaker.
Learn how our heart and circulatory research has led to breakthroughs in the treatment of irregular heart rhythms.
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