Harvard Health Letter

Heart: Implantable defibrillators: Simple fix may save lives

Raising the allowable beats per minute may avoid injury, even death, from inappropriate shocks.

An implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) can be a lifesaving device in someone with a tendency to develop dangerous heart rhythms. An ICD detects the onset of an irregular and potentially fatal heart rhythm and delivers an electric shock to stop it. But sometimes ICDs go off in response to irregular heart rhythms that aren't dangerous or deadly. "Unnecessary shocks can be painful, and there is some evidence that frequent inappropriate shocks weaken heart muscle and make a bad situation worse, increasing the risk of death," says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School..

Fixing the problem may be simple. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that small changes to the ICD setting can reduce inappropriate shocks by up to 90% and can reduce the risk of death by 55% compared with cases in which ICDs are not adjusted.

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