Pacemaker for high blood pressure

August 20, 2009 3:32:30 PM PDT
For many people, medication does little to control high blood pressure, putting them at risk for heart attacks and strokes. Researchers are testing a device that's designed to put blood pressure back on track and cut down on the need for pills.And for people like Hazelene Jackson, that's welcome news. She loves to whip up her family's favorite meals, but standing over a hot stove or grill became more than her body could take. Jackson has battled hypertension since she was 12 years old.

"My blood pressure would raise to 230 over 120, and sometimes even higher," Jackson said.

That's dangerously above the normal adult pressure of 120 over 80. Over time, hypertension left Jackson exhausted and unable to work or care for her family.

"I felt like a wet piece of bread," she said. "What can you do with a wet piece of bread? Nothing."

Doctors implanted a device in Jackson's chest to lower her blood pressure.

"Similar to a pacemaker for the heart, there's a small battery and controller component that goes underneath the skin and wires leading from it," said Dr. John Blebea, of Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Instead of wires going down to the heart, the wires lead up to the carotid arteries in the neck. When a patient's blood pressure is too high, they stimulate a nerve in the neck.

"That causes the brain to send out multiple signals to try to bring down the blood pressure," Dr. Blebea explained.

The brain sends those signals to lower a patient's heart rate by 10 beats per minute and relaxes the arteries.

With the device in place, Jackson's blood pressure is near normal.

"I have energy," Jackson said. "I feel alive again. I can do the things that I need to do."

The device is permanently implanted in patients and may require a battery change every two or three years, which can be done under local anesthetic. The surgery to implant the device can take several hours, and patients who have hardened arteries or advanced heart disease are at increased risk of stroke from the procedure. Most people with high blood pressure show no symptoms and may go years without knowing they have it.

Web produced by Maura Sweeney




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