It’s estimated that, in the U.S., more than 850,000 people are hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, each year. Arrhythmias can be caused by many different factors, including:
–Coronary artery disease
–Electrolyte imbalances in your blood (such as sodium or potassium)
–Changes in your heart muscle
–An injury from a heart attack
–The healing process after heart surgery
Irregular heart rhythms can also happen in normal, healthy hearts.
Your doctor can detect an irregular heartbeat during a physical exam by taking your pulse or through an electrocardiogram (ECG). When you have an irregular heartbeat, you can experience palpitations, pounding in your chest, dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort.
There are many different treatments that have been developed to help stabilize an irregular heartbeat. Electrical cardioversion, drugs, pacemakers, and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators are all common ways of dealing with the condition.
Cardioverter defibrillators, or ICDs, have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans at risk for sudden cardiac death because of heart rhythm abnormalities. But, these life-saving devices have been getting some bad press over the past couple of years. The problem is, they can cause an electrical shock. The wires, or leads, that connect the ICD to the heart can sometimes fracture, causing patients to unnecessarily receive painful shocks.
The medical community has been at a loss as to what to do about these otherwise extremely beneficial devices. Until now, that is. Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles have found a way to cut the relative risk of accidental shocks in half simply by downloading upgraded software into the ICD during a routine doctor’s visit. The software checks for suspicious electrical signals six times a day and, if problems are detected, alerts the patient with a beep every four hours.
ICDs do come with standard software, but it only monitors the device for signs of fractures and other mechanical problems once a day, and notifies the patient of any abnormalities with a single alert at the same time every day.
But perhaps the biggest improvement is that the new software can detect electrical changes that signal a wire fracture and recalibrate the device to delay an inappropriate shock from occurring.
For the software study, a research team compared the experience of 426 patients prior to surgery to replace fractured leads. Half of the patients received standard daily monitoring and half were monitored with the addition of the new downloadable software. Among the patients who had standard monitoring, 70% received one or more inappropriate shocks. This was compared to only 38% of those who were monitored with the help of the new software — a significant drop.
The researchers also found that 72% of patients with the newly installed software had no inappropriate shock, or had at least three days warning prior to an inappropriate shock, compared with only 50% of those who received standard monitoring.
An estimated 114,000 patients have surgery to implant or replace ICDs every year, according to the American Heart Association.