There’s no app for this one. Patients with cardiac pacemakers or other devices are being warned to put some distance between their phone and pacemaker. A little distance can help you avoid pauses in function or painful shocks.

The warning comes in new research presented at EHRA EUROPACE – CARDIOSTORM 2015. Lead author, Dr. Carsten Lennerz, presented the findings at the conference.

Before you toss the phone away, the distance recommended is easy to achieve. Use the phone on your opposite ear of the device, and don’t put it in your chest pocket.

Dr. Lennerz explained the phenomenon via a press release:

‘Pacemakers can mistakenly detect electromagnetic interference (EMI) from smartphones as a cardiac signal, causing them to briefly stop working. This leads to a pause in the cardiac rhythm of the pacing dependent patient and may result in syncope. For implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) the external signal mimics a life-threatening ventricular tachyarrhythmia, leading the ICD to deliver a painful shock.’

Cardiac Pacemakers and Smartphones

Researchers enlisted 308 patients to test the current FDA safety recommendations of 15 to 20 cm between pacemakers or ICDs and smartphones. At issue are the guidelines were developed ten years ago. We were all using flip phones, and the first iPhone was still two years away.

Technology has rapidly changed on both the medical and smartphone front. New cardiac devices are in use including next-generation pacemakers, ICDs and cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT). Smartphones have become the equivalent of an older desktop computer in our pockets.

Out of the 308 study participants, 147 had pacemakers, 161 ICDs and 65 CRTs. For the study, each participant was exposed to the electromagnetic field of three common devices – the HTC One XL, Samsung Galaxy 3 and Nokia Lumia. Each device was placed directly above the device through with skin contact.

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Once the phone was placed, researchers connected each to a radio communication tester. Each phone was run through a simulation of calling, including connecting to a network, ringing, talking and disconnecting. GSM, LTE and UMTS protocols were used in each test at the maximum transmission power of 50 Hz. The frequency is known to negatively influence implanted cardiac devices.

‘From earlier studies we know that the most vulnerable phases of a call are ringing and connecting to the network, not talking, so it was important to analyse these separately.’

The results showed one patient, who had an MRI compatible device, had an incident where the ICD detected HTC and Nokia signals on GSM and UMTS as intracardiac signals. It works out to a 0.3 percent rate with direct skin contact.

Dr. Lennerz remarked on the incident rate:

‘Interference between smartphones and cardiac devices is uncommon but can occur so the current recommendations on keeping a safe distance should be upheld. Interestingly, the device influenced by EMI in our study was MRI compatible that shows that these devices are also susceptible.’

How Can You Protect Yourself?

It’s a simple fix. People are going to use smartphones. They are a part of our lives now. Just don’t place it inside a chest or breast pocket. Use it on your opposite ear. And, take breaks. The break won’t help your pacemaker, but we could all stand to put the phones down for a bit.

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