Maintaining Health and Exercising Safely with ICDs

Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) – also known as pacemakers – are fairly straightforward devices implanted in patients who have irregular heartbeats in order to maintain normal heart rhythms. After local anesthesia is administered, a small incision is made in the upper left chest where the device is inserted. Then a thin wire on the device is guided through a vein into the heart where it can stimulate the heart if abnormal rhythms are detected.

While the procedure is fairly simple, it is important for patients who have pacemakers to follow certain guidelines in order to maintain optimal health.  These guidelines and the most frequently asked questions about ICDs – particularly as it relates to exercise and activity – are addressed below.

How long does it take to recover after having an ICD?

It may take a few weeks for you to return to normal activities.  When leaving the hospital, you will be given detailed instructions about how to manage your ICD as well as information about when to become fully active again based on the treatment plan designed by your physician.

How do I resume regular daily activities after an ICD?

It is safe to return to most activities over time, but there are some things that should not be done.  Most ICD patients are not allowed to drive for a week after the procedure and, based on your physician’s guidelines, you will typically limit lifting on the left side and avoid activities that involve pushing and pulling (mowing the lawn, reaching up to high levels, etc.).  It is safe to travel after your ICD procedure, but be sure to keep your cardiac device identification card with you along with a list of your physicians and their telephone numbers.

Am I allowed to exercise if I have an ICD?

Exercise is not only safe but improves the heart health of patients with ICDs.  Those who participate in exercise following the procedure typically show significantly improved levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and have a lower likelihood of experiencing any ICD issues.  But it is best to ease back into exercise and gradually increase length and intensity. Avoid contact sports such as football since they could affect or damage your device, and talk to your physician about workouts that involve heavy weights.

Am I going to cause an ICD shock by exercising?

When an ICD detects an abnormal heartbeat, it delivers small, rapid impulses or shocks to the heart to restore a normal heart rhythm.  One-third to one-half of ICD patients receive at least one in the first year after implantation and most describe the sensation as a sharp punch or kick in the chest.  These incidents can be uncomfortable and stressful, but they mean that the device is doing its job.  And all studies conducted in this area show that exercise will not increase the likelihood of shocks or cause them. 

Are there devices or appliances I need to avoid with an ICD?

It is important to avoid anything that has a strong magnetic or electrical field such as industrial welders, electrical generators, ham radios or CBs, large magnets, metal detecting wands or high voltage power lines.

Most home appliances and office equipment are safe to use; however, it is best to use cell phones and earphones with caution. Do not carry either in a chest pocket and be sure to hold your phone to the ear on the opposite side of the device. While it is safe to walk through a metal detector in airport security areas, alert personnel to your ICD so that use of a screening wand can be avoided.

Do I need special alerts if I have an ICD?

Always carry a card in your wallet that describes the kind of device you have and wear medical alert jewelry that indicates you have a pacemaker.  Also be sure to notify all of your doctors and dentists about your device before you have any test, procedure or surgery.

To learn more about exercise safety and resuming normal activity after implantation of an ICD, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.