Uncovering phantom shocks in cardiac patients with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator

Ana Bilanovic, Jane Irvine, Adrienne H. Kovacs, Ann Hill, Doug Cameron, Joel Katz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Background Implantable cardioverter defibrillator recipients sometimes report "phantom shocks" (PSs), defined as a reported shock lacking objective evidence. The aim of this study was to describe the subjective experience of PSs and their psychosocial correlates using a mixed methods approach. Methods PS participants were matched on sex and age with individuals who received objective shocks only (OSO). Participants were interviewed and completed measures of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD Checklist - Civilian Version), depression and anxiety (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale), disease-specific distress (Cardiac Anxiety Questionnaire - CAQ), and social desirability (Socially Desirable Response Set - SDRS). Interviews were analyzed using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Results Seventeen male patients participated (PS: n = 9; OSO: n = 8). Three themes emerged from IPA: (1) PS as a somatic experience, (2) the emotional impact of PSs, and (3) searching for meaning. Quantitative analyses showed that both groups exhibited elevated trauma and anxiety levels. Effect size differences (ESD) suggested a medium ESD on depression (P = 0.176, ηp2 = 0.118) and PTSD (avoidance: P = 0.383, ηp2 = 0.055, numbing: P = 0.311, ηp2 = 0.068), and a large ESD on SDRS (P = 0.081, ηp2 = 0.189), where PS participants, comparatively, exhibited elevated levels. A medium ESD was detected on CAQ-fear (P = 0.237, ηp2 = 0.092) where OSO participants exhibited greater heart-focused worry. Conclusion The qualitative and quantitative findings of this mixed method study show convergence in terms of the emotional factors associated with the experience of PSs. PSs are often reported to be indistinguishable from objective shocks, evoking alarm, frustration, and confusion, forcing the individual to face the uncertainties of what to them is a novel and confusing experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)673-683
Number of pages11
JournalPACE - Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • ICD
  • PTSD
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • implantable cardioverter defibrillator
  • phantom shocks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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