Pacemaker Users Should Use Mobile Devices with Caution

Pacemakers help keep about 3 million hearts around the world beating at a normal rhythm, but remain at risk for improper function with the ever-evolving technology around them.

A pacemaker is a small implantable device that keeps a person’s heart beating regularly – providing the body with the blood and oxygen it needs to function. However, their performance can be compromised when they come in close contact with strong electromagnetic fields such as metal detectors, electrical generators and high-tension wires.

Those who wear pacemakers have had to learn to adjust their lifestyle to avoid close proximity to such things. However, the rules of the game have changed in recent years as magnetic-emitting devices have become much more close and personal such as cell phones and tablets.

According to the Federal Drug AdministrationOff Site Icon (FDA), radiofrequency energy from cell phones can interact with some electronic devices such as pacemakers. The FDA helped develop a standard which cell phone manufacturers can follow to make the mobile devices less likely to interfere. Still, cardiologists such as Mark Krebs, MD, of Miami Valley Cardiologists, say patients should be aware of the risks and learn to be cautious when using mobile devices.

“Items usually have to have a strong magnetic field in order to interfere with pacemakers, and though unlikely, cell phones can pose that risk,” says Dr. Krebs, who practices with Premier Physician Network. “That’s why we coach our patients on small steps they can take to reduce that risk while still being able to use the devices that their lifestyle requires.”

Changing with Technology

Pacemakers are usually affected in one of three ways when cell phone interference occurs, the FDA says. The pacemaker will not be able to deliver the stimulating pulses needed to regulate the heart’s rhythm, it will deliver the pulses too irregularly, or it will ignore the heart’s own rhythm and deliver pulses at a fixed rate.

According to the FDA, those wearing a pacemaker can still safely use a cell phone by taking two simple precautions:

  • Proper storage – Avoid placing a turn-on phone next to the pacemaker implant. For instance, don’t carry the phone in a shirt or jacket pocket that rests over the pacemaker. Dr. Krebs says cell phones should be kept up to 6 inches away from a pacemaker.
  • Proper distance – Hold the phone to the ear opposite the side of the body where the pacemaker is implanted to add extra distance between the pacemaker and the phone. Likewise, ear buds and head phones for cell phones or music players should be kept no lower than the location of the ear. Studies have shown earphones placed very close to a pacemaker have a strong enough emission to cause interference, Dr. Krebs says.

According to the American Heart AssociationOff Site Icon (AHA), pacemakers allow millions of individuals to live full, healthy lives and enable them to engage in activities such as light exercise that were impossible prior to the device. Still, understanding the risks associated with interference and taking steps to avoid it will help a person realize the device’s fullest benefits.

“Technology around us is always growing, but thankfully it is also changing to meet the needs of cardiac devices such as pacemakers,” Dr. Krebs says. “We have seen manufacturers certainly come through with ways of reducing the magnetic exposure to pacemakers and shielding it from as much electromagnetic interference as possible. Still, individuals need to understand that there is always the risk for interference and so the best defense is behavior or lifestyle modification to accommodate the technology around them.”

For more information on pacemakers or to find a Premier Physician Network physician near you, visit www.premierphysiciannet.com/Cardiology/.

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