What is an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)?

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator, also known as an ICD, is a medical device that is used to track heart rate to help prevent sudden death in high-risk patients with diagnosed ventricular arrhythmias.

An ICD is a battery-powered device that is implanted under the skin with wires running to the heart. If your heart falls out of sync and the device detects an abnormal heart rhythm, the device will send an electric shock to the heart in an effort to restore the normal heartbeat.

Who is candidate for an implantable cardioverter defibrillator?

You may be a candidate for an ICD if you have one of the following conditions:

  • Ventricular tachycardia or have fainted because of a ventricular arrhythmia
  • History of coronary artery disease
  • Previous heart attack that damaged or weakened the heart muscle
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • Long QT syndrome
  • Brugada syndrome 
  • Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia 
  • Congenital heart disease
Also for you to be considered for a ICD, your doctor must have ruled out other causes of your symptoms, including drug toxicity, electrolyte imbalance or inadequate blood flow to the heart muscle. 

How is an implantable cardioverter defibrillator implanted?

An ICD, which is approximately the size of a small cookie, is implanted under the skin in the chest or abdomen. Leads will be run from the device to the heart through the blood vessels. X-rays will be used to place the leads correctly in the heart. Once the device is in place, your doctor will test it to ensure it is working correctly.

The ICD batteries last approximately seven years before having to be replaced.

Why get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator?

Implantable cardioverter defibrillators can reduce a person’s risk of sudden cardiac death.

Risks of implanting a cardioverter defibrillator

Complications from ICD implantation are rare. If you have a serious complication, such as bleeding around the heart, blood leaking through the heart valve where the ICD is place or a collapsed lung, you should seek medical attention immediately. 

Less serious complications from the ICD implantation include:
  • Infection around where ICD was implanted
  • Allergic reaction to medications 
  • Swelling at implantation site

Recovery after an ICD has been implanted

After your ICD has been implanted, you will stay in the hospital for one to two days. Your doctor and care team will test the ICD before you will be discharged to determine if it is working correctly.

If you experience pain after the implant, you can take pain medication such as Tylenol or Advil. If the pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications. Do not take aspirin as it can cause severe bleeding. 

Although most patients will be able to drive a week after the implant, some patients are advised not to drive for up to six months if you had a previous heart attack or ventricular arrhythmia. Your doctor may also recommend refraining from contact sports, lifting heavy objects (more than 5 pounds), vigorous activity or exercises for a month or more.

To ensure the ICD works correctly, patients need to be cautious using the following devices:

  • Cell phones - avoid putting the phone within six inches of the ICD
  • Handheld metal detectors 
  • Medical equipment - MRIs or MRAs are not advised for patients with ICDs
  • Power-generating equipment such as high voltage transformers - stand at least two feet away from these pieces of equipment
  • Magnets - do not place magnets within 6 inches of your device

Also, if you are traveling via airplane, your ICD may set off security alarms. Your doctor can give you a card that identifies that you have an ICD.

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