Differences Between Pacemaker & Defibrillator

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Pacemaker vs. Defibrillator

Two devices that help patients manage their heart conditions are pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs). Both affect the beating of the heart, which can leave people asking, “What’s the difference between a pacemaker and a defibrillator?”

When is a Pacemaker Used?

A pacemaker is a small device that’s implanted under the skin in the upper chest. It can detect when the heart is beating in an abnormal way, such as too rapidly or in an unusual rhythm. The device then sends out electrical impulses that can restore a normal heart rate and rhythm.

Your doctor might prescribe a pacemaker if your heart tends to beat too slowly or erratically, if you take certain medications that slow your heart rate or if you’ve had what’s called an ablation procedure and need the device to control your heart rhythm. The main difference between a pacemaker and a defibrillator is that the pacemaker provides frequent/ongoing and more subtle regulation of the heartbeat whereas a defibrillator provides a shock when the heart’s function is dangerously abnormal.

When is a Defibrillator Used?

Like a pacemaker, an ICD is an implanted device that monitors heart activity and takes action if it becomes abnormal. With a defibrillator, however, the electrical stimulation is provided in instances where the beating of the heart has become highly unstable.

Your doctor might recommend an ICD if you have a heart condition that causes the activity of the lower chambers of the heart (called the ventricles) to be very abnormal and this puts your life at risk. You might also get an ICD if you’ve had a heart attack. Again, an ICD differs from a pacemaker in that the defibrillator responds in life-threatening situations and with a more powerful jolt that’s meant to reset the heart rhythm.

Should I Get Both a Pacemaker and a Defibrillator Implant?

In some instances, both a pacemaker and a defibrillator may be needed. This would be the case if you have a heart condition that requires regular monitoring and modification of the heart’s function and also have a higher risk of a heart attack. Some newer devices act both as a pacemaker and an ICD.

Having a device implanted is safe. However, as with all medical procedures, there are certain risks. They include infection, damage to blood vessels or nerves, blood clots, and a punctured or collapsed lung. Even so, the benefits of having a pacemaker or ICD outweigh the risks of implantation surgery.

Learn more about everything you should know before and after open heart surgery with Baptist Health.