Pacemaker Malfunction

Continuing Education Activity

Pacemakers are implanted in patients with rhythmic cardiac problems. These pacemakers can often malfunction and produce a set of symptoms that require timely assessment and rectification. This activity outlines different ways a pacemaker can malfunction and highlights the role of the healthcare team in managing the patient with pacemaker malfunction.


  • Describe the basic functioning of a pacemaker.
  • Outline different ways in which a pacemaker usually malfunctions.
  • Review the underlying mechanisms of malfunction of the pacemaker.
  • Summarize the importance of the health care team in the management of the patient with pacemaker malfunction and the preoperative assessment of patients with pacemakers.


Sinoatrial node acts as the natural pacemaker of the heart. The cells present in the sinus node have innate automaticity, which starts the electrical activity in the heart. This innate electrical potential moves from the sinoatrial node to the atrioventricular node and finally into the His-Purkinje system. This movement of electric potential in an orderly manner controls the rhythmic contraction of the chambers of the heart. The failure of this intrinsic electrical conduction in the heart can result in different arrhythmic problems. However, in this situation, an external electrical stimulus can lead to depolarization of myocytes due to the electrical excitability of the heart tissue. This process leads to excitation-contraction coupling resulting in the contraction of myocardial tissue. The external electrical stimuli that initiate the cascade of events, in this case, is provided by an external pacemaker.[1]


Pacemakers consist of two main components: a pulse generator and the leads. Pulse generator houses the battery and other electronics which control the modes of the pacemaker. And the leads conduct the depolarizing potential to the myocardium. The sensing of the innate activity of the heart is also a function of the leads.[1]

Patients who will benefit the most from the cardiac pacemakers often present with the symptoms related to bradyarrhythmias. Decreased tolerance to exercise, syncope, easy fatiguability, and lightheadedness are a few symptoms that might be present. Dysfunction of the atrioventricular node or sinoatrial node is the underlying pathology in most of these cases. Building a solid causal relationship between the symptoms and bradyarrhythmias requires intricate history taking and thorough examination with support of electrocardiographic findings. The stronger the causal relationship, the stronger will be the benefit of cardiac pacemaking.[2]

Issues of Concern

Even though pacemakers are a reliable piece of technology, they can malfunction, resulting in adverse outcomes. Pacemakers can have problems with pacing the intended heart chamber. These kinds of malfunctions further divide into an output failure or a capture failure. 

In the case of output failure of a pacemaker, the heart rate falls below the programmed lower cut off of the pacemaker. Moreover, the lack of pacing spikes on the electrocardiogram depicts the absence of pacer electrical output. Crosstalk inhibition, oversensing, failure of the battery, lead, or pulse generator are a few causes that can lead to output failure[3]. Malfunction due to the battery can occur with its depletion. The pacemakers usually show an “elective replacement indicator,” which points to 90 days of functional battery remaining. The “end of life” indication represents the depletion of the battery to the point that its function is now unreliable.[4]

Lead displacement is one of the most common occurrences with pacemakers that can cause its malfunction. If the dislodgement of the lead occurs within six weeks of implantation, it is known as early displacement. And if it happens after six weeks, it is delayed displacement.[5]

Capture failure occurs when the pacing stimulus is present, but it fails to produce depolarization in the myocardium. The electrocardiogram will show the presence of pacing spikes, but there will be no QRS complex or P wave following these spikes. Fibrosis of the tissue in contact with the leads, dislodgement of the leads, low output of the pacemaker generator, or the maturation of lead are a few underlying mechanisms that can lead to capture failure of a pacemaker.[6]

Other than failure to pace the intended part of the heart, pacemakers can malfunction when they are unable to detect innate signals produced in the heart. These problems can be either undersensing or oversensing by the pacemaker. Undersensing can cause asynchronous pacing of the heart when the pacemaker fails to detect spontaneous depolarization in the myocardium. The pacing spikes of the atria or ventricles are generated without any coordination with the P waves or the QRS complex. The programming problems associated with the pacemakers, failure of lead or the pulse generator, the low voltage signal of the myocardium, any derangements in the electrolyte levels, etc. can lead to undersensing.

The process of oversensing occurs when the pacemaker detects the electric signals; it should not sense. This oversensing results in the pacemaker inhibiting the pacing stimulus. Pacemakers usually sense the signals of cardiac depolarization like P or R waves, but a repetitive signal of sufficient amplitude can be detected by the pacemakers, which results in inhibition of the pacing when this action is not required. The interference due to electromagnetic waves, failure of lead, or even T waves can cause oversensing in a pacemaker.[7]

Clinical Significance

The topic of thoracic MRI in patients with cardiac implanted electronic devices (CIED) is a debatable one. The list of anticipated risks includes aberrant changes in the pacing output, changes in the programmed mode or current might be generated in the lead wires leading to heat-induced thermal damage at contact points or causing unintended cardiac stimulation[8]. MRI-conditional pacemakers are better able to handle the interference due to magnetic resonance imaging. A research study in patients with non-MRI-conditional devices concluded that there was no failure of the device or lead in these patients when undergoing non-thoracic MRI of approximately 1.5 tesla.[9]

CT scan of the patient does not usually cause any problems in the pacemakers. Therefore, the presence of an implanted pacemaker should not hinder such investigative imaging modality. In rare cases, it might lead to transient changes in the output of the pacemaker.[10]

Some CIEDs make use of piezoelectric crystal components in the circuitry or lead connections. Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy can damage such components due to its effect on those components leading to device malfunction.[11]

Other Issues

Therapeutic radiation can produce undesirable outcomes in patients with pacemakers. These outcomes include reprogramming resulting in aberrant behavior, resetting of the device, or permanent malfunction due to damage to the semiconductor insulation. There will be precipitous no-output of the pacemaker in case of permanent damage to its components.[12] The volume of “scatter radiation” deemed to be safe for an implanted pacemaker is often provided by the manufacturer. However, in case of lack of that information, contacting the manufacturer for that information is the best next step.[13]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

When planning therapeutic radiation for a patient with an implanted pacemaker, the status of the device requires monitoring by a healthcare provider who specializes in monitoring the pacemakers. Moreover, the radiation oncologist should assess the amount of radiation dose to be received by the device in that particular case.[14] 

If the malfunction of the device is due to lead dislodgement, the management depends on the timing of the event related to the timing of the implantation of the device, the severity of the dysfunction, the clinical situation of the patient and the location of the displaced lead (atrial or ventricular). Reopening and reinstating of the lead is a good management option in early displacements as the chances of fixation of the lead by the fibrous endocardial reaction are very low. Thus, allowing the manipulation of the lead.[15] 

On the other hand, if the displacement of the lead is late, surgical manipulation might not be an option. In such cases, the introduction of the lead in the chamber of the heart where the displacement has occurred is a good management plan. This new lead cancels the effect of previously displaced lead in that chamber.[16]

Different problems can arise during anesthesia, surgery, or ICU management of patients with cardiac implantable electrical devices (CIED). These problems include ventricular tachyarrhythmias, asystole, hypotension, and bradycardia, etc.[17] Proper preoperative management is crucial to avoid such undesirable outcomes. The first step is to identify patients with CIED. The identification of such patients is followed by the clinical assessment, analysis of the functioning of the device. Hospitals should have pacemaker clinics or trained specialists of electrophysiology who can properly assess the pacemakers before the surgery. In most cases, the modes of the pacemaker will require changing for undergoing surgery.[3]

Article Details

Article Author

Muhammad Talha Liaquat

Article Editor:

Talal Alzahrani


5/18/2020 7:26:32 PM

PubMed Link:

Pacemaker Malfunction



Nelson GD, A brief history of cardiac pacing. Texas Heart Institute journal. 1993;     [PubMed PMID: 8508058]


Kusumoto FM,Schoenfeld MH,Barrett C,Edgerton JR,Ellenbogen KA,Gold MR,Goldschlager NF,Hamilton RM,Joglar JA,Kim RJ,Lee R,Marine JE,McLeod CJ,Oken KR,Patton KK,Pellegrini CN,Selzman KA,Thompson A,Varosy PD, 2018 ACC/AHA/HRS Guideline on the Evaluation and Management of Patients With Bradycardia and Cardiac Conduction Delay: Executive Summary: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines, and the Heart Rhythm Society. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2019 Aug 20;     [PubMed PMID: 30412710]


Atlee JL,Bernstein AD, Cardiac rhythm management devices (part II): perioperative management. Anesthesiology. 2001 Dec;     [PubMed PMID: 11748411]


Mulpuru SK,Madhavan M,McLeod CJ,Cha YM,Friedman PA, Cardiac Pacemakers: Function, Troubleshooting, and Management: Part 1 of a 2-Part Series. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2017 Jan 17;     [PubMed PMID: 28081829]


Chauhan A,Grace AA,Newell SA,Stone DL,Shapiro LM,Schofield PM,Petch MC, Early complications after dual chamber versus single chamber pacemaker implantation. Pacing and clinical electrophysiology : PACE. 1994 Nov;     [PubMed PMID: 7845809]


Harrigan RA,Chan TC,Moonblatt S,Vilke GM,Ufberg JW, Temporary transvenous pacemaker placement in the Emergency Department. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2007 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 17239740]


Safavi-Naeini P,Saeed M, Pacemaker Troubleshooting: Common Clinical Scenarios. Texas Heart Institute journal. 2016 Oct;     [PubMed PMID: 27777525]


Indik JH,Gimbel JR,Abe H,Alkmim-Teixeira R,Birgersdotter-Green U,Clarke GD,Dickfeld TL,Froelich JW,Grant J,Hayes DL,Heidbuchel H,Idriss SF,Kanal E,Lampert R,Machado CE,Mandrola JM,Nazarian S,Patton KK,Rozner MA,Russo RJ,Shen WK,Shinbane JS,Teo WS,Uribe W,Verma A,Wilkoff BL,Woodard PK, 2017 HRS expert consensus statement on magnetic resonance imaging and radiation exposure in patients with cardiovascular implantable electronic devices. Heart rhythm. 2017 Jul;     [PubMed PMID: 28502708]


Russo RJ,Costa HS,Silva PD,Anderson JL,Arshad A,Biederman RW,Boyle NG,Frabizzio JV,Birgersdotter-Green U,Higgins SL,Lampert R,Machado CE,Martin ET,Rivard AL,Rubenstein JC,Schaerf RH,Schwartz JD,Shah DJ,Tomassoni GF,Tominaga GT,Tonkin AE,Uretsky S,Wolff SD, Assessing the Risks Associated with MRI in Patients with a Pacemaker or Defibrillator. The New England journal of medicine. 2017 Feb 23;     [PubMed PMID: 28225684]


Henrikson CA,Leng CT,Yuh DD,Brinker JA, Computed tomography to assess possible cardiac lead perforation. Pacing and clinical electrophysiology : PACE. 2006 May;     [PubMed PMID: 16689847]


Platonov MA,Gillis AM,Kavanagh KM, Pacemakers, implantable cardioverter/defibrillators, and extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy: evidence-based guidelines for the modern era. Journal of endourology. 2008 Feb;     [PubMed PMID: 18294028]


Thomas D,Becker R,Katus HA,Schoels W,Karle CA, Radiation therapy-induced electrical reset of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator device located outside the irradiation field. Journal of electrocardiology. 2004 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 15132373]


Kapa S,Fong L,Blackwell CR,Herman MG,Schomberg PJ,Hayes DL, Effects of scatter radiation on ICD and CRT function. Pacing and clinical electrophysiology : PACE. 2008 Jun;     [PubMed PMID: 18507546]


Marbach JR,Sontag MR,Van Dyk J,Wolbarst AB, Management of radiation oncology patients with implanted cardiac pacemakers: report of AAPM Task Group No. 34. American Association of Physicists in Medicine. Medical physics. 1994 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 8164594]


Nawa S,Shimizu N,Kino K,Hayashi K, Spontaneous secure reimplantation of a dislodged pacemaker electrode onto the right ventricular outflow tract, reestablishing a sufficient pacing condition. Clinical cardiology. 1993 Mar;     [PubMed PMID: 8444003]


Favale S,Nacci F, Percutaneous transcatheter repositioning of displaced permanent pacemaker lead. Pacing and clinical electrophysiology : PACE. 1999 Dec;     [PubMed PMID: 10642138]


Eagle KA,Berger PB,Calkins H,Chaitman BR,Ewy GA,Fleischmann KE,Fleisher LA,Froehlich JB,Gusberg RJ,Leppo JA,Ryan T,Schlant RC,Winters WL Jr,Gibbons RJ,Antman EM,Alpert JS,Faxon DP,Fuster V,Gregoratos G,Jacobs AK,Hiratzka LF,Russell RO,Smith SC Jr, ACC/AHA guideline update for perioperative cardiovascular evaluation for noncardiac surgery--executive summary: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Committee to Update the 1996 Guidelines on Perioperative Cardiovascular Evaluation for Noncardiac Surgery). Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2002 Feb 6;     [PubMed PMID: 11823097]