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Understanding pacemaker failure

Patients in Kentucky who have undergone a surgical procedure to implant a pacemaker should be aware that these medical devices tend do malfunction far more often than their manufacturers acknowledge. Such was the finding of a recent study reported by Nova, the popular PBS series.

Based on the research of a University of California physician, the 35-month study tracked down all the San Francisco people who suddenly died, regardless of cause. If the decedent's body contained a cardiac device, the researchers removed and examined it. They were stunned at the results: a full 50 percent of these devices were defective. The defects ranged from drained batteries to serious mechanical failures.

Monitoring problems

The Federal Drug Administration bears responsibility for making sure pacemakers are as safe and effective as their manufacturers claim. The problem, however, is that once implanted, their performance is difficult to track due to lack of data. No one records which brand of pacemaker a given patient receives or the specific device of that brand. Consequently, the patient himself or herself becomes de facto responsible for monitoring his/her device's performance.

Pacemaker malfunction red flags

Fairview Medical lists the following signs and symptoms of pacemaker failure that patients should watch for:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting or consciousness loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • Difficulties breathing
  • Abnormally fast or slow heart rates
  • Frequent hiccups or constant muscle twitches in the chest or abdomen

Pacemaker maintenance

Pacemaker recipients should get their device's battery checked every six months at a minimum. Even though the battery should last for five to seven years, battery power decreases over time and the battery may need recharging more frequently the longer it remains in the patient's body. Patients should ask their doctor or other health care provider how to monitor their device. Sometimes monitoring can be done simply by transmitting appropriate information to the provider electronically or over the phone.

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