New Research Says MP3 Player Headphones May Interfere With Pacemakers

Sometimes it seems like 90% of the US population is walking around with an iPod or other portable MP3 player tucked into their pocket, and you would not normally think of these miniscule devices as being dangerous in any way; but new research suggests that pacemakers and other cardiac implants could actually be disrupted by the headphones used with the portable players.

New research from Harvard University, and reported by the Washington Post, suggests that the magnets in MP3 player headphones could knock pacemakers and cardio defibrillators off their normal rhythm when placed in close proximity to these devices. The authors of the Harvard study are advising individuals with pacemakers to keep headphones away from their torso, or a minimum of 1.2 inches away from any cardio device.

Many people tend to let the headphones or earbuds from their MP3 player hang loose around their neck or sling them over the shoulder. Dr. Peter Cheung, of Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine recommends leaving the headphones in trouser pockets instead, to keep a safe distance between the magnets and pacemaker or defibrillator devices.

In the past, research has shown that even household appliances like microwave ovens can cause pacemakers to malfunction. Even theft protection devices used by many retail outlets can throw off cardio appliances. And while the effect of these electronics on pacemakers tends to be minor, for patients with severe cardiac problems it is a risk not worth taking — especially when it can be so easily avoided.

Encouragingly, the MP3 players themselves appeared to pose little if any damaging effect on pacemakers and ICDs, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But until the recent Harvard study, very little attention had been given to headphones and earbuds.

During the research, scientists examined the effects of eight different kinds of MP3 player headphones on 60 volunteers who used either cardiac pacemakers or defibrillators. Approximately 30% of the volunteers had their cardio units affected by the magnets from the headphones when they were situated over the left shoulder so that the magnets were in close proximity to the device.

Even storing the headphones in the front pocket of a shirt or coat could be problematic; but the researchers are quick to point out that the effect on the cardiac devices is minimal, and unlikely to be life-threatening.

Fortunately, even larger magnets had no effect on the devices when stored a safe distance away from the upper torso, so using common sense and keeping headphones in the lower coat pockets or trouser pockets should be all the protection most cardiac device users would need to avoid problems.


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