Headphones could be fatal for patients with a heart condition

Heart patients who have been fitted with pacemakers or implantable defibrillators have been warned against placing them in their top pocket or draping them around one’s neck – as they could interfere with these devices.

According to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2008, many headphones contain the magnetic substance neodymium which could adversely affect the operation of implanted cardiac devices – such as pacemakers.

“We became interested in knowing whether the headphones which contain magnets - not the MP3 players, themselves - would interact with implanted cardiac devices,” said William H. Maisel, MD, senior author of the study and director of the Medical Device Safety Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Maisel said doctors traditionally use magnets in the clinical setting to test pacemakers, which treat slow heart rhythms. When exposed to magnets, these devices automatically pace, sending low-energy signals to the heart to make it beat.

Defibrillators, which treat slow and dangerously fast heart rhythms, send either low- or high-energy signals to the heart. However, pacemakers near magnets may temporarily stop looking for abnormal heart rhythms.

In most cases, removal of the headphones restores normal device function.

Implanted cardiac devices that react in these ways to magnets outside the clinical setting can be potentially dangerous for patients who rely on their lifesaving technologies.

Researchers tested eight different models of MP3 player headphones (including both the clip-on and earbud variety) with iPods on 60 defibrillator and pacemaker patients.

“We placed the headphones on the patients’ chests, directly over where their devices are located, monitoring them for evidence of an interaction,” Maisel said.

The researchers found a detectable interference with the device by the headphones in 14 patients, (23 percent). Specifically, they observed that 15 percent of the pacemaker patients and 30 percent of the defibrillator patients had a magnet response, claimed Maisel.

“For patients with pacemakers, exposure to the headphones can force the device to deliver signals to the heart, causing it to beat without regard to the patients’ underlying heart rhythm..........exposure of a defibrillator to the headphones can temporarily deactivate the defibrillator.”

The researchers also tested the magnetic field strengths of each of the headphone models using a gauss meter, which measures the units of magnetic charge produced.

Field strength of 10 gauss at the site of the pacemaker or defibrillator has the potential to interact with the implantable device. The researchers found that some of the headphones had field strengths as high as 200 gauss or more.

“Even at those high levels, we did not observe any interactions when the headphones were at least 3 cm, or about 1.2 inches, from the skin’s surface,” added Maisel.

“Patients should not focus on the brands we tested but instead should simply be instructed to keep their headphones at least 3 cm from their implantable devices.”

“For family members or friends of patients with implantable defibrillators, they should avoid wearing headphones and resting their head right on top of someone’s device,” he said.

Earlier this year an FDA report concluded that interactions between MP3 players, such as the popular iPod, and implanted cardiac devices are unlikely to occur.

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