External Pacemaker

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Continuing Education Activity

External pacing is one of the fastest methods for treating multiple types of conduction abnormalities. It can be applied in the hospital setting or by emergency medical service providers when transporting critically ill patients. This activity reviews the utility of external pacing as well as the utility of other modalities that can be used in conjunction with external pacing to improve patient outcomes. This activity highlights the role of the interprofessional team in caring for patients who require external pacing.


  • This articles summarizes the classical uses of external pacemaker in patients presented with different cardiac emergencies such as atrio-ventricular bradyarrythmias etc.
  • This articles explains the procedure to perform external pacing in cardiac care units.
  • This review article outlines the probable complications associated with external pacing.
  • It has been explained in this article that how interprofessional team strategies and good communication can enhance care coordination to improve the management of life-threatening arrhythmias and subsequently the patient outcomes.


An External Cardiac Pacemaker that is also known as a Transcutaneous or Artificial Pacemaker is an electrodes-based medical device that is used to regulate the contractility of myocardiocytes to maintain adequate heart rate and so cardiac output. While pathologic bradyarrhythmias occur for a variety of reasons, clear indications exist for the use of external or transcutaneous pacing. This article will discuss not only those indications but also other modalities that can be used alongside external pacing as potentially life-saving treatment. Technical details of external pacing and a comprehensive review of studies examining external pacing are also included in the discussion.[1][2][3]. Although this emergency treatment is life-saving, it can not be relied upon for an extended duration. This temporary bridge should be replaced by a transvenous pacing or other permanent treatment to maintain hemodynamic balance.  

Anatomy and Physiology

Normal electrical conduction through the heart originates in the sinoatrial node. This is located in the superior aspect of the right atrium. Conduction then spreads through the atrium to the atrioventricular node at the inferior portion of the right atria. From there, it travels down the Bundle of His followed by, the right and left bundle branches located in the interventricular septum. Lastly, it spreads across the ventricles via the Purkinje fibers. While in external cardiac pacing, pacer pads activate a focal point in the left ventricle. Electricity then spreads to the rest of the ventricular myocardium from that focal point. Direct capture of the atria is very difficult to obtain regardless of pad placement. Indirect capture can occasionally be obtained via retrograde conduction through the atrioventricular node. As compared to normal atrioventricular pacing, Transcutaneous Cardiac Pacing provides greater cardiac output due to strong diaphragmatic and skeletal muscle contractions despite decreased left ventricular systolic pressure and a reduce stroke index [4]


External Pacing is the fastest available method to synchronize cardiac rhythm in all the bradyarrhythmias indicated by the American Heart Association (AHA) [5]. This temporary method is used to maintain cardiac output in all those irreversible conditions where there is a need for a permanent pacemaker or those reversible situations where permanent pacing is contraindicated [6]. Bradycardia is defined as a heart rate less than 60 beats per minute. However, not all cases of bradycardia require pacing. Rather, transcutaneous pacing should only be applied in situations that include systolic blood pressure less than 90, heart rate less than 40, or if an arrhythmia is compromising organ perfusion. Prior to the initiation of pacing, atropine can be given as a means of improving or reversing the bradycardia. Standard dosing is 0.5 milligrams intravenously. However, larger doses can be given in a patient who shows no improvement with the standard dose.

External Pacing can be done in patients having Atrioventricular Nodal dysfunction caused by an acute myocardial infarction, chest or cardiac trauma, infections (Lyme disease or bacterial endocarditis), sepsis, etc. Bradycardic patients secondary to electrolyte disturbances, metabolic abnormalities, drugs (such as beta-blockers), or hypothermia are also strong candidates for this pacing method [7]. It is important to emphasize that external pacing is never a replacement for permanent invasive transvenous pacing. Third-degree heart block, a particular type of AV block characterized by an unstable rhythm with a high risk of degeneration to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation is also an indication for transcutaneous pacing.

Certain cases of ventricular tachycardia such as postoperative atrial flutter, Torsades de Pointes may also be improved with external pacing after all other options have been exhausted. Recurrence of the arrhythmia was prevented from recurring in 14 of 16 cases using transcutaneous overdrive pacing.[8][9][10]


Generally, cardiac pacing should not be considered in asymptomatic hemodynamically stable patients to treat bradycardia. No definitive contraindications exist for external pacing when clinically indicated [11]. Some negative sequelae associated with cardioversion have been seen. These outcomes include failure of an implanted ventricular lead and failure of an implanted atrial lead. While these adverse reactions are from a very limited number of cases secondary to cardioversion, it is possible to extrapolate that external pacing may result in the same complications.


Only trained healthcare providers should perform external pacing.


If possible, the skin should be prepared before the placement of the pacer pads. Hair should be removed, but not shaved as this can create a nidus for infection. The skin should be cleansed with an alcohol wipe to remove any dirt, debris, or sweat whenever possible to ensure maximum conduction between the pads and the skin.


Pacing pads are positioned on the patient's chest either in the anterolateral position of anteroposterior one. Multiple variations of pacer pad placement are equally effective. "Negative electrode in the left parasternal region, the positive electrode in the right subscapular region; a negative electrode in the left parasternal region, a positive electrode in the left subscapular region; or negative electrode at the cardiac apex or the position of lead V3, a positive electrode in the right parasternal region." As long as the apical/anterior pad is negative, precise electrode placement is not essential. The rate should be set between 60 to 90 beats per minute with the electrical output, also known as the current, set to its lowest setting. The rate should be slowly increased until a pacer spike is seen on the monitor. Continue to increase the rate until a QRS complex follows each spike. This indicates electrical capture. Confirmation of mechanical capture should be done by feeling for a pulse. Additionally, mechanical capture can be confirmed using ultrasound and by observing ventricular contraction. If the patient is conscious, little sedation can be considered to reduce the feeling of discomfort associated with cardiac pacing[12].


In subjects with normal left ventricular function, pacing may reduce stroke volume significantly. This change was also seen in patients with heart failure. Both external and internal pacing caused a reduction in ejection fraction. There were no significant differences between the reduction that external pacing caused and the internal reduction pacing caused. To maintain approximate cardiac output, the rate of pacing can be increased. 

Side effects of transcutaneous pacing include cutaneous burns and muscle contractions. Superficial injury from the pacing pads resembles mild folliculitis. It is well known that muscle contractions can be extremely painful. To the point that sedation/anesthesia may be required. While the muscle contractions can be painful, no skeletal or myocardial muscle injury (as measured by CK, CK-MB, and troponin blood levels) developed after 30 minutes of pacing at 38 to 70mA with rates 10-20% above resting heart rate. Most cases of cutaneous burns are mild. However, many cases having third-degree burns have been reported in neonates, children and geriatric age group after cardiac pacing [13][14]. Risk of burns likely increases when pacer pads are used against manufacture instructions and are reapplied for multiple uses.

Two promising new ways of non-invasive pacing are currently being studied to mitigate the side effects of current transcutaneous pacing techniques. The first uses high-intensity frequency ultrasound to stimulate pacing. The second uses iron microparticles injected intravenously and a generated magnetic field to pace in a concept known as mechano-electrical feedback.[15][10]

Clinical Significance

External pacing is one of the quickest and easiest methods for treating multiple types of conduction abnormalities. Everything from bradycardia to ventricular tachycardia can be managed with external pacing until definitive treatment can be implemented. Furthermore, it can be used under a variety of circumstances, ranging from drug-induced electrical disturbances to conduction system inhibition secondary to myocardial infarct. It can be applied in the hospital setting or used by emergency medical service (EMS) providers when transporting critically ill patients to maintain an adequate cardiac output to ensure enough organ perfusion [6].

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

External pacing is a procedure that is sometimes required on the medical and surgical floors. While the physician may actually initiate the pacing, it is the nurse who is primarily responsible for monitoring the patient. Hence, nurses have to be familiar with external pacing and its indications. Before the pacing is initiated, the patient should be educated about potential complications such as burns or failure to capture. The patient should also be informed about the potential discomfort of tingling or small shock-like nerve impulses. The nurse has to be fully aware that transcutaneous pacing may not always work and must be prepared to have a transvenous pacer system kit and atropine at the bedside. Finally, the nurse should make sure that no person may use their mobile phones or other electronic devices near the patient as this may interfere with the pacing unit. An appropriate warning sign needs to be placed on the door.[16][17][18]]. Studies have shown that the hemodynamic effects are similar between external pacing and internal right ventricular pacing. However, currently available studies do not show that transcutaneous pacing improves patient outcomes. Data available is very limited. Most studies available have sample sizes of less than 150 patients and the time to application of the pacing was greater than 20 minutes. Larger studies with earlier application times are needed to confirm the effect of transcutaneous pacing on patient outcomes [19]. Healthcare outcomes can also be improved by good coordination and communication between the health professionals team, which consists of physicians, nurses, cardiac physiologists, and intensivists. A strong doctor-patient relationship must be there.

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Pacemaker Table
Pacemaker Table
Contributed by Matthew Ellison, MD, FASA
Article Details

Article Author

Meagan Crofoot

Article Author

Ayesha Sarwar

Article Editor:

Alec J. Weir


9/12/2022 9:16:37 PM



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