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.
An ICD is a small, battery-powered device that doctors place in patients’ chests to monitor their heart rhythms and detect irregular heartbeats. A defibrillator is different than a pacemaker.
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 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.
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:
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.
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 the 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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