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What is a Wandering Pacemaker?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A wandering pacemaker is a type of arrhythmia characterized by a shifting in the location of the heart's natural pacemaker. The result is an irregular heartbeat, with a P wave — the wave which indicates a shift of electrical activity from the right atrium to the left atrium — that moves around when the heartbeat is viewed on an electrocardiograph (ECG). This arrhythmia is usually not a cause for concern and it does not require further treatment. However, there may be cases in which it is associated with another health problem which does require attention.

The heart's natural pacemaker is located in the sinoatrial (SA) node, an area in the upper portion of the right atrium. This area includes a cluster of pacemaking cells which determine the heart's rhythm. In someone with a wandering pacemaker, sometimes cells in the atrioventricular (AV) node, in the lower area of the right atrium, take over pacemaking duties temporarily. This results in irregularities in the heartbeat that the patient can usually feel, and which will also show up as irregularities on an ECG.

The vagus nerve is a nerve which regulates the heartbeat; it's "tone" is the level of activity or impulses sent by the nerve. A decrease in vagal tone can cause the AV node to start regulating the heartbeat. When the tone increases, the SA node will resume its proper role. This type of malfunction can occur in response to stress and other pressures and may occur independently or in connection with certain medications or conditions.

A doctor can diagnose a wandering pacemaker with the assistance of an ECG to visualize the heartbeat. By examining the patterns on the ECG, the doctor can determine not only that the patient has an arrhythmia, but what kind of arrhythmia the patient has, and what may be causing it. Wandering pacemakers are a form of atrial arrhythmia, because they originate in the right atrium of the heart.

Patients who have a wandering pacemaker may want to make sure that it is noted on their charts so that when they interact with new care providers, their care providers will not be concerned or startled by the arrhythmia. It may also be necessary for some patients to attend cardiology appointments for the purpose of monitoring heart function to confirm that the heart is still healthy and to determine whether or not more aggressive treatment options should be pursued.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Ivan83 — On Jun 28, 2011

Until I read this article I never knew exactly what regulated the heartbeat. Now I know that it is the vagal nerve. I always knew that something controlled this, it is so crucial to the performance of our bodies, but until now I had never heard of the vagal nerve.

I will have to more research on this because I am really fascinated. I guess we can think of the vagal nerve as a kind of internal metronome. It somehow contains an innate sense of rhythm. I wonder if this contributes to our broader sense of rhythm, the ability of most people to follow along with a beat? Maybe musicians and drummers especially have enlarged vagal nerves.

By backdraft — On Jun 27, 2011

I was diagnosed with a wandering pacemaker in my mid 20s. At the time of the diagnosis my heart sank, I thought that I would have to be fitted for a pacemaker and would suffer from heart problems for the rest of my life.

Luckily my doctor explained immediately that this was not any real cause for alarm. It was noted on my chart, and my doctor told me to be extra aware of heart health, but he did not recommend any treatment beyond that. That was almost 10 years ago and I have not had any problems since. My doctor tells me I am in fine shape and I feel great. A wandering pacemaker does not need to be a scary diagnosis.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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