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What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a small device that's placed in the chest or abdomen. Doctors use the device to help treat irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs).

An ICD uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias, especially those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

SCA is a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating. If the heart stops beating, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. SCA usually causes death if it's not treated within minutes.

Understanding the Heart's Electrical System

Your heart has its own internal electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat. With each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of your heart to the bottom. As the signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood.

Each electrical signal normally begins in a group of cells called the sinus node or sinoatrial (SA) node. As a signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom, it coordinates the timing of heart cell activity.

First, the heart's two upper chambers, the atria (AY-tree-uh), contract. This contraction pumps blood into the heart's two lower chambers, the ventricles (VEN-trih-kuls). The ventricles then contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. The combined contraction of the atria and ventricles is a heartbeat.

For more information about the heart's electrical system (including detailed animations), go to the Health Topics How the Heart Works article.

Overview

A problem with any part of the heart's electrical system can cause an arrhythmia. Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious.

ICDs use electrical pulses or shocks to treat life-threatening arrhythmias that occur in the ventricles (the heart's lower chambers).

When ventricular arrhythmias occur, the heart can't pump blood well. You can pass out within seconds and die within minutes if not treated.

To prevent death, the arrhythmia must be treated right away with an electric shock to the heart. This treatment is called defibrillation (de-fib-ri-LA-shun).

An ICD has wires with electrodes on the ends that connect to your heart chambers. The ICD will monitor your heart rhythm. If the device detects an irregular rhythm in your ventricles, it will use low-energy electrical pulses to restore a normal rhythm.

If the low-energy pulses don't restore your normal heart rhythm, the ICD will switch to high-energy pulses for defibrillation. The device also will switch to high-energy pulses if your ventricles start to quiver rather than contract strongly. The high-energy pulses last only a fraction of a second, but they can be painful.

Doctors also treat arrhythmias with another device called a pacemaker. An ICD is similar to a pacemaker, but has some differences.

Pacemakers give off only low-energy electrical pulses. They're often used to treat less dangerous heart rhythms, such as those that occur in the upper chambers of your heart. Most new ICDs can act as both pacemakers and defibrillators.

An Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and a Pacemaker

The image compares an ICD with a pacemaker. Figure A shows the location and general size of an ICD in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest. Figure B shows the location and general size of a pacemaker in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest.

The image compares an ICD with a pacemaker. Figure A shows the location and general size of an ICD in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest. Figure B shows the location and general size of a pacemaker in the upper chest. The wires with electrodes on the ends are inserted into the heart through a vein in the upper chest.

People who have heart failure may need a special device called a cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device. The CRT device is able to pace both ventricles at the same time. This allows them to work together and do a better job pumping blood out of the heart. CRT devices that have a defibrillator are called 
CRT-D.

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November 09, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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