Pacemakers: A Helping Hand for the Heart

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The human body has hundreds of mechanisms in place that keep you healthy and active. But when one of these mechanisms encounters a problem and malfunctions, medical science and innovation steps in to help. One of the best examples of these medical helpers is a pacemaker.

A pacemaker keeps heart rhythm steady using electrical signals. It is needed when the heart’s electrical system is faulty. Normally, the heart’s electrical signal starts at the sinus node, which is called the heart’s natural pacemaker. A group of cells creates electrical signals in the top two chambers of the heart, called the atria. In response to these signals, the atria contract and then pump blood into the ventricles, the lower two chambers of the heart. The electrical signal from the sinus node reaches another group of cells that relays the message to the ventricles, which contract and pump blood into the rest of the body through blood vessels.

pacemaker illustration

When the sinus node or another part of the electrical system does not work as it should, a pacemaker takes over. Pacemakers consist of a generator, which houses a battery and essential information, and wires which attach to the generator. Electrodes at the end of the wires detect the heart’s electrical activity. The wires send this information back to the generator, which responds with the appropriate electrical pulses that stimulate the heart. These electrical pulses control and regulate heart rhythm.

The roughly 400,000 pacemakers that are implanted in the U.S. every year treat a variety of disorders and health issues. Diseases that affect the heart’s electrical system are called conduction disorders. Conduction disorders cause a problem in either the generation of the electrical signal or in how the signal is passed throughout the heart. In older people or people with heart disease, the sinus node is less effective in keeping the proper heart beat timing, which can cause bradycardia (slow heart rhythm). Bradycardia is the most common reason for needing a pacemaker!

Pacemaker batteries need to be replaced every five to seven years, but this procedure is minimal because the wires connected to the heart are usually kept in place and simply attached to the new generator. New technologies have also increased capabilities to monitor breathing rate, record the heart’s electrical activity, and monitor blood temperature through the pacemaker computers.

Medical innovations such as the pacemaker are life-changing for people with heart conditions, and with its track record of success and constant improvements, pacemakers will be helping hearts for many years to come.

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