What is a defibrillator vest?

Of all the types of defibrillators, the defibrillator vest, or also known as a wearable cardioverter defibrillator, is probably the least well known.  There are many reasons why someone at high risk of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) would consider using one, so this article will outline what a defibrillator vest is and what type of patient would benefit from one.

The main purpose of a defibrillator vest is to continuously monitor the wearer’s heart and detect if the patient suffers any arrhythmia (for a more detailed explanation of SCA and arrhythmia see one of the other articles on defibrillators).  If the vest detects an irregular heartbeat, typically in the form of ventricular fibrillation, it will provide the needed shock to restore the normal rhythm.

The vest itself has two main components.  One is the garment, which is worn underneath the clothes and has the electrodes that continuously read the patient’s electrocardiogram (ECG).  The garment is designed to be lightweight and fit comfortably to avoid inhibiting the wearer from performing their daily functions.  The other part of the vest is the monitor that is about the size of a paperback book and can be worn around the waist or from a shoulder strap.  The electrodes from the garment are attached to the monitor and send the patient’s ECG.  If the monitor detects arrhythmia it will sound an alarm to warn the patient that it will soon be delivering a shock.  If the patient is conscious they can hit a button to stop the monitor from delivering the shock, but if the patient is already unconscious, as is almost always the case with SCA, the monitor will warn bystanders that a shock is being provided and then will deliver one through the electrodes.  If the monitor still detects arrhythmia, it will continue to deliver up to five shocks or until the heart returns to normal.  Once the heart is normal, the alarm will stop and the defibrillator vest returns to its normal mode.

The defibrillator vest differs from other defibrillators like an automatic external defibrillator (AED) in that it does not require a bystander to provide shocks, making it a great alternative for patients at high risk of SCA.  For some patients that are considered at high risk but do not yet meet the criteria for an implantable defibrillator (ICD), the defibrillator vest can be a good alternative.  For patients that do meet the criteria and are waiting to receive surgery for an ICD, it can be a good precaution until the date of the surgery.  Problems with the heart should never be taken lightly, so if you think you are at a high risk for SCA, consult your doctor immediately and explore your options.