Pacemakers and Electronic Interference

Health Professional

Q: My mother just had a pacemaker and was told that there were electric devices that she had to "watch out for". We were concerned that we might do something that would expose her to risk from her heart. Is there anything that her family should be aware of that might cause the pacer to "go haywire" and malfunction?

Most people who need pacemakers can expect to have fewer symptoms, be less likely to faint and in some instances live longer than they would have without the pacemaker. Your mother has now joined tens of thousands of people who have received these implanted electronic marvels which now include some types which can now stimulate more than one chamber at a time, or can "resynchronize" the heart to make it perform better, or can terminate dangerous arrhythmias (internal cardioverter/defibrillator or ICD). The use of these latter devices has virtually exploded onto the scene and into the newspapers over the past few years with the publication of research studies demonstrating that they may save more lives than some medicines.

When a patient receives one of these devices, they are given a booklet, and teaching about their individual heart conditions, and the reason that the pacemaker was implanted (this term sounds better than "stuck in"). The booklets don't cover everything (though they try) as technology is constantly changing (who ever would have thought of portable cell phones when we put in the first pacers in the 1960's, pacer batteries lasted less than 6 months back then, but 6 to 15 years now).

Fortunately, several decades of experience have made these devices quite safe, and the newer devices are not often seen as limiting an active lifestyle. The major source of limitations associated with these devices is based on the underlying heart condition. For older patients whose only cardiac issue is a very slow heart rate and requiring a pacemaker, the inability to operate a jackhammer, or use a body-fat measuring scale shouldn't be an issue.

I've listed below some of things that most people want to know about pacemaker/ICD interactions in the hope that this will answer your questions and those of others in the same situation. For devices such as airport security, and theft deterrence devices, walking through at a reasonable pace will limit exposure and diminish chances of a problem. With respect to cell phones, keeping them at a distance from the pacer/ICD (the other side) and the conversations short will diminish chances of a problem.

Devices that are generally considered safe for patients with pacemakers and internal cardioverter/defibrillators (ICD)

  • Most household devices such as radio, television, CD/DVD players, clocks, watches, remote controls, garage door openers, air purifiers, washing machine and dryer, toasters, microwave ovens, heating pads, portable space heaters, blenders and electric blankets

  • Most small office equipment such as copiers, pagers, computers

  • Electric invisible fences

  • Medical devices such as CT scans, dental drills, patient alert devices, ultrasound, electrocardiogram, diagnostic x-rays

Devices that may interfere with some functions of pacemakers and internal cardioverter/defibrillator (brief exposure, and increased distances from the device may be reasonably safe)

  • Airport security and store theft detection systems

  • High voltage lines, CB/Police radio antennas, radiofrequency transmitters

  • Running motors and alternators, high power generators

  • Arc welding equipment, chain and jig saws, drills, hedge clippers, lawn mowers, snow blowers

  • Battery powered cordless tools and power toothbrushes

  • Induction ovens

  • Slot machines

  • Cell phones

To be avoided by patients with pacemakers and internal cardioverter/defibrillators (ICD)

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

  • Diathermy

  • Body fat measuring scales

  • Electrolysis (hair removal)

  • Jackhammers

  • Magnetic mattresses and chairs