how long can you live with a defibrillator

How Long Can You Live With A Defibrillator? What You Need To Know To Lead a Fulfilling Life

Many people view an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator as a handicap, or as something that stands to interfere with their daily lives. 

The truth is, though, that a person can live a long, healthy and fulfilling life with an ICD so long as it continues to function properly. If you were recently told you need an ICD, or if you already have one implanted, you may wonder how long can you live with a defibrillator and, just as importantly, what you can do to protect the device and your heart.

What Is an ICD? 

An ICD is a small, battery-powered device that doctors place in patients’ chests to monitor their heart rhythms and to detect irregular heartbeats. 

If a device detects an abnormality, the ICD will deliver a shock to the heart much like the electric paddles you see on television. In fact, ICDs work exactly like the external defibrillators, only they work internally and monitor for irregularities on a continual basis.

To implant an ICD, a surgeon will need to open the chest cavity. From there, he or she will guide electrode leads through one or two veins in your heart and connect those leads to a defibrillator. 

Once connected, the physician will test the device to ensure it is working properly and meets all your medical needs. If it is, the surgeon will place the device, which is no bigger than a matchbox, into a pouch beneath the skin of the chest or abdomen and then close the incision.

How Does an ICD Work? 

ICDs continually monitor the heart for abnormal rhythms and behavior through the electrode leads. Abnormalities may include anything from a heart rate that is too fast to chaotic heartbeats to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

If the device detects an abnormality, it will send an electrical pulse to the heart to regulate the rhythm. What type of pulse it sends depends on the reason you need the device in the first place. Your doctor may program your ICD to deliver one of the following types of pulses:

High-Energy Shock: 

If you live with serious heart problems, your physician may program your ICD to deliver a high-intensity shock that can be painful initially. This shock may feel like a kick to the chest, but it only lasts for a brief second. You should not feel any discomfort after the initial shock.

Low-Energy Pacing: 

This type of shock is unnoticeable to most. At most, however, you may feel a flutter in your chest when it responds to abnormalities in your heart rate.

For most people with ICDs, a single shock is enough to restore proper function of the heart. However, some individuals do experience two or more shocks during a single day. 

When this occurs, doctors refer to it as an arrhythmia or electrical storm. If you experience such an event, you should seek emergency medical attention right away to ensure that your device is continuing to work properly and/or find out what is causing the disruption in heart rhythm.

What Can I Expect From Life With an ICD?

Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators have become the standard course of treatment for anyone who has survived cardiac arrest and individuals who live with heart conditions. The reason for this is simple: They extend lives. 

ICDs drastically reduce the risk of sudden death by cardiac arrest and are more effective than medication alone. Though the shock associated with a correction can be alarming—especially if you require a high-level shock—it serves as a sign that the device is doing its job and that you have very little chance of dying from cardiac arrest.

All that being said, you should take extra precautions to protect your device so that it can continue to protect you. In addition to maintaining regular checkups with your doctor, there are short- and long-term precautions you will want to take.

What Short Term Precautions Can Protect Your ICD?

You will likely be able to return to life as normal soon after undergoing the implantation surgery. 

However, during the recovery period — which can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months — your doctor may urge you to refrain from doing the following:

  • lifting heavy objects
  • engaging in vigorous, over-the-shoulder activities such as swimming, golfing, bowling, bicycling, tennis or vacuuming
  • participating in any form of intense exercise

Unfortunately, there are some activities you will have to avoid indefinitely to protect your device. Many of those are contact sports, as blunt force may dislodge the device’s wires or cause irreparable damage.

What Long-Term Precautions Should You Take?

After the initial recovery phase, your list of things to avoid will include less activities and more other forms of technology. Types of machinery that can interfere with your ICD’s ability to monitor and regulate your heart rhythm are as follows:

  • Cellphones: Though you can still use your cellphone, you should keep it at least six inches away from your heart so that the signal does not confuse the ICD.
  • Medical Equipment: Individuals with ICDs should not undergo MRIs, MRAs, or microwave or radio frequency abrasion. Always let your doctors and dentists know if you have an ICD.
  • Magnets: You should not allow magnets any closer than six inches to your device, as it could interfere with its ability to function properly.
  • Headphones: Like with magnets and cell phones, maintain a six-inch distance between your device and a set of headphones.
  • Security Systems: Security systems, such as those at airports, contain powerful magnetic systems that can mess up your ICD. Your doctor will give you a card to present to TSA that says you have a defibrillator. The agent may use a handheld device, but because these too contain magnets, limit scanning with these devices to no more than 30 seconds. If you don’t feel comfortable with even a handheld screening, request a manual search.
  • Power Generators: Maintain at least a two-foot distance between yourself and any high-voltage or motor-generator systems.

 

Aside from taking precautions when using the above devices, you can go about life as almost normal with an ICD. You can still enjoy everyday activities such as exercise, swimming, bathing, showering, sexual intercourse and other activities that give life meaning. 

However, if you are unsure about the risks associated with any particular activity or device, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor.

Can You Drive With an ICD? 

Most doctors do not recommend driving with an ICD for at least the first six months after having one implanted. 

This recommendation is strongly encouraged for individuals who have an ICD because of ventricular arrhythmia or previous cardiac arrest. The American Heart Association fears that a shock while driving may cause panic or feelings of faintness, neither of which is safe while behind the wheel. 

However, if you go six months without any shocks, your doctor may give you the green light to begin driving again. If you have a shock within this initial waiting period, talk to your doctor about how it made you feel so that he or she may make appropriate recommendations.

Unfortunately, if your ICD has been programmed to deliver a high-level shock, you may never be able to drive again. The sudden and painful shock may cause you to jerk the steering wheel or perform some other motion that causes an accident. 

Regardless of the type of shock your device is programmed to deliver, you cannot receive or maintain a commercial driver’s license with an ICD.

Can an ICD Cause Complications?

Like with any medical treatment, there are complications that are associated with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. 

According to the data, approximately one in four ICD patients experience complications within four years of having the device first implanted. 

Though complications are rarely serious, you should seek immediate medical attention if you experience any. Common complications of an ICD include the following:

  • Injury to the lung, bleeding in the lung cavities or a collapsed lung
  • Arteriovenous fistula (an abnormal connection between the vein and artery)
  • Blood clots in the veins or arteries
  • System infection
  • A hole developing in the blood vessels
  • Failure to defibrillate or high defibrillation shock
  • Bleeding from the pocket
  • Rejection phenomena
  • Over and under-sensing the heartbeats
  • Surgical complications, such as infection, bleeding, inflammation and blood clots
  • Obstruction of the major veins
  • Death

How Long Is the Battery Life on an ICD?

Most ICDs have a battery life of seven years. Of course, several factors will affect this, including the intensity and frequency of shocks. 

Your doctor will check the battery life during each checkup, which is why it is so important to maintain your six-month visits. Once the battery dies, you will need to undergo a minor outpatient procedure to replace it.

How Long Can You Expect To Live With an ICD?

A person who has an ICD can live as long as any person with a healthy heart. However, bear in mind the precautions mentioned above, and always discuss activities past your doctor before engaging in them so that you may preserve your ICD’s health and prolong your life.

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