What are the Most Common Causes of Pacemaker Failure?

Erin J. Hill

The most common cause of pacemaker failure is an infection in the incision site or pacemaker pocket. This does not typically cause the device to fail, but it must be replaced to prevent further infections from occurring. Certain devices such as a cell phone may also cause a pacemaker to malfunction if used too close to the chest. Very rarely a pacemaker malfunction will be caused by a faulty generator or leads.

Cell phones may cause a pacemaker to malfunction.
Cell phones may cause a pacemaker to malfunction.

Infection in the pocket where the generator is inserted is the most common type of pacemaker failure. Although the device itself is generally still sound, some patients may be more prone to infections with certain models than others. Those with compromised immune systems may be more likely to get an infection using any model than those with healthy immune function. When infection occurs, the entire pacemaker system is typically replaced to remove any bacteria which may have accumulated there. Sometimes a specialized antibacterial mesh liner is inserted with the new generator to help avoid recurrent infection.

Regular maintenance appointments are required to prevent pacemaker malfunctions.
Regular maintenance appointments are required to prevent pacemaker malfunctions.

Another, less common, reason for pacemaker failure,is that the patient used a device which was not compatible with the pacemaker too close to the generator. The most common of these devices is the cellular phone. When used properly, mobile phones do not have any negative effects on the pacemaker generator. They shouldn't, however, be carried directly above the chest, as in a shirt breast pocket. Microwave ovens are not dangerous to pacemaker function when used as directed.

Very rarely, pacemaker failure may be caused by a malfunction in the system itself. This more commonly occurs in the generator, but can occasionally affect the leads as well. While not unheard of, this type of failure is very rare. To ensure proper working function, patients are advised to attend regular appointments with their doctors to check the device using a special device. Even more rarely, a device model will be recalled due to a tendency to break or not function properly.

Patients must also attend yearly visits so that their doctor can check the batteries in their generators. Although not exactly a form of pacemaker failure, patients who do not have the batteries in their devices changes every five to eight years run of the risk of the pacemaker running low on power and impaired function. This does not generally occur as long as regular maintenance appointments are kept on time each year. Sometimes, additional appointments can be kept over the phone.

Infections can cause pacemakers to malfunction.
Infections can cause pacemakers to malfunction.

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Discussion Comments


I have had a pacemaker fitted, myself. I wasn't keen on the idea at the time, but my family was very supportive and well, after my stroke, the doctors called me in to see what I wanted to do since they were suggesting I have one placed. Yes, the first couple of months, I was not good. I was in a lot of pain and even phoned up the hospital as I didn't know if I was meant to be feeling this way. They told me to come in as soon as possible.

They were pretty good, but now I would not be without my pacemaker. I go out by myself, take longer walks and do all the things I want to do. It has really changed my life.


I play tennis regularly. When I have had my pacemaker for one month, can I play again?


I'd be quite worried about my cellphone interacting with a pacemaker since I use it all the time. The doctors have told me I might need to get one in the next year or so, but they're waiting to see what develops.

The idea of having a foreign object in my body seems like quite a bad one actually. I don't like the idea at all, but if you've got no alternatives, I suppose it's better than feeling breathless all the time.

I just hope I'll be able to stop it from failing. It seems like they've made quite a few advances with the technology so hopefully it won't be an issue.


@browncoat - It looks as though people are more vulnerable to getting an infection in the incision site, rather than where the leads are placed.

I think the area where the leads are will be completely kept away from any outside influences except the leads themselves, since they are threaded down there through a blood vessel.

So that's not so much of a worry. The place where they put the pacemaker itself is the incision site, I think and that's the part that's close to the surface. As long as she keeps herself healthy and keeps up her medication and any other instructions she's given, it should be fine.

But she will have to take it easy. You aren't supposed to do anything too vigorous for the first couple of months because you could jar loose the leads from what I remember.


My mother is going to get a pacemaker in a couple of weeks. She's been reading the information packet they gave her to study and has been telling me some of the things that will happen. She thought at the most she'd be out of commission for a week or two, but apparently it takes up to two months for the leads to really become settled into the blood vessels where they are supposed to be. From what I can tell they are supposed to be anchored by scar tissue.

So I suppose you have a real risk of infection for quite a while after the initial surgery. Since I assume you'd be able to get one until the whole thing settles down to where it's supposed to be.

It makes me very nervous because I know my mother finds it difficult to take it easy while she's sick or recovering. I hope she manages to let it heal the way it's supposed to.

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