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Heart Health

Living with an implantable defibrillator

July 1, 2021

Ask the doctor

Q. My 79-year-old father recently received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. While he seems to be doing okay, he and my mother are both very anxious about what will happen if he ends up needing a shock. I live nearby and want to support them, so can you offer any advice? I’d also like to be aware of the general advice for people who have these devices.

A. You can reassure your parents that feeling anxious about a shock from an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is both understandable and fairly common. An ICD continuously monitors the heart’s rhythm and rate, checking for abnormalities. If it senses a minor glitch, the device emits a low-energy electrical correction that might go unnoticed. But correcting a potentially life-threatening rhythm problem requires a significant jolt. Some patients have told me it feels as though they’ve been kicked in the chest by a horse. It may help to know that many people with ICDs never receive a shock. In fact, recent improvements allow doctors to program the devices to have a longer period of "watching" to allow the errant rhythm to terminate on its own before delivering a shock.

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