Most people have seen those dramatic scenes in movies and television shows where an emergency room doctor or paramedic rubs two paddles together and yells, “Clear!” This dramatization is showing a standard piece of equipment that can save lives — a defibrillator.
First responders and medical personnel use defibrillators to deliver an electric charge to the heart during cardiac arrest. This burst of electrical current can restore a normal rhythm.
However, defibrillators come in other forms, including automated portable units for use outside medical settings. And advancements in medical technologies have even made it possible to make defibrillators small enough to fit inside the body, providing constant monitoring and heart support.
Dr. Yogesh Paliwal at Indus Cardiology offers advanced cardiac care to Southern Californians from state-of-the-art locations in Pomona, Montclair, and West Covina.
Here’s what you should know about defibrillators, the heart arrhythmias they correct, and their benefits after a cardiac arrest.
Understanding how defibrillators work
The current — or charge — that a defibrillator delivers is typically associated with restoring a normal rhythm in someone without a pulse (ventricular tachycardia). However, defibrillators can also save your life when you’re experiencing ventricular fibrillation.
Ventricular fibrillation is a type of abnormal rhythm, or arrhythmia, that causes chambers in the lower heart to quiver instead of beating steadily.
Both ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation affect the heart’s ability to send blood to your body. They can also cause serious complications, including death within moments, without treatment, making defibrillators valuable, life-saving tools.
However, using a defibrillator when it’s not necessary can also trigger a life-threatening arrhythmia.
The different types of defibrillators
There are different types of defibrillators, but they fall into two categories: external and internal.
These devices are used in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units. They’re adjustable, so your physician can change the timing and strength of the electrical current.
Once they select the device settings, your doctor triggers the pulse, which gets delivered via handheld pads positioned strategically on your chest.
Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) work in a similar way. However, these lightweight, portable units are designed for use by individuals without medical training beyond learning how to place the pads and following step-by-step instructions provided aloud by the machine.
To use an AED, you apply sticky pads to an individual’s chest. These pads control the delivery of the electrical charge. These machines also have built-in safety measures to avoid shock deliveries that aren’t necessary.
Internal defibrillators also deliver a pulse to the heart, but through an implanted device — or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). These battery-powered internal devices are approximately the size of a pocket watch and get surgically placed in the chest or underarm.
An ICD is programmed to produce a low-energy electrical pulse to slow or speed up an abnormal heart rate.
So, once in place, the ICD monitors your heart rhythm constantly. Its design enables it to automatically deliver an electrical charge to the heart when it senses ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia.
When to consider an implanted cardioverter defibrillator
Sometimes, heart attacks develop over hours, causing shortness of breath, pain, and other symptoms that signal decreased blood flow to the heart. This is a medical emergency, but people often have time to seek care in a timely manner.
But cardiac arrest can also occur suddenly, causing loss of consciousness quickly as blood stops flowing to the brain. In these situations, people around you may not realize you’re having difficulty. And, even if they do recognize your situation, there may not be enough time to access emergency services or an AED.
As a result, Dr. Paliwal at Indus Cardiology could recommend an ICD if you have a severely damaged or weakened heart. You could also benefit from an ICD if you have a higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest due to:
- Previous cardiac arrest
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (thickening of the heart muscle)
- Long QT syndrome
- Heart valve disease
- Ventricular fibrillation
- Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD)
- Heart failure
The idea of having an ICD may seem alarming, but it can provide life-saving results. It’s also important to note that receiving a high-energy shock from an ICD can feel like being kicked in the chest. Fortunately, the discomfort lasts only a second.
Are you curious to see if you could benefit from an ICD? Schedule a visit at Indus Cardiology today for more information about arrhythmia and your treatment options today.