Wearable tech has been called many things: a time-saver, a calorie counter, a fitness tracker, and an activity monitor. But a lifesaver? Not until recently.
Fitness devices like the Apple Watch and certain Fitbit models include a built-in heart rate monitor that tracks the wearer's heart rate hour over hour. Normal heart rates for the average adult fall between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). So if your heart rate skyrockets into the 120-plus red zone (and you're not exercising), the data on your wearable device could be the warning sign you need to head to the hospital.
Check out five deadly medical emergencies that were successfully avoided — thanks to an activity tracker.
1. FitBit Reveals Student's Undiagnosed Heart Condition
Sarah-Jayne McIntosh, an 18-year-old university student, typically had a resting heart rate of 84 bpm. While she was doing a late-night study session, however, she realized her heart rate had escalated to 210 bpm — almost three times the speed of her normal heart rate!
McIntosh called 111 (Britain's emergency number) and was rushed to the hospital, where she learned that she had a potentially fatal heart condition.
McIntosh probably would have noticed such a sudden spike in heart rate without the fitness tracker. But the Fitbit's visual proof of her abnormal heart rate compelled her to act as quickly as possible.
"The doctors said that if I hadn't phoned for an ambulance when I did and if I wasn't wearing my Fitbit to track my heart rate, I could have suffered a heart attack/cardiac arrest and could have died," McIntosh told the Mirror.
2. Apple Watch Warns High Schooler About Muscle Failure
Paul Houle Jr., a 17-year-old high school football player, knew his normal heart rate fell between 60 and 70 bpm. After two sets of two-hour practices in hot weather, Houle's heart rate escalated to 145 bpm. That's a normal heart rate for an active teen, but Houle got nervous when he saw that, three hours after his second practice, his heart rate still hadn't fallen. He also had trouble breathing and felt pain in his back. (Houle later found out that his back pain was a symptom of his kidneys failing.)
When Houle was examined by his athletic trainer and school nurse, the nurse confirmed that his blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously high. Houle was rushed to the ER and diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a relatively common muscle injury that is a known risk for young athletes exposed to strenuous summer workouts. By the time Houle was treated, his muscles had begun deteriorating and releasing a protein that also shut down his heart, liver, and kidneys.
When Houle was released from the hospital three days later, he still suffered from fatigue and muscle soreness. Houle is not sure when he'll play football again, but he'd "rather be alive than playing football," he told the Huffington Post.
Houle and his dad, cardiologist Paul Houle Sr., credit the Apple Watch for compelling Houle to ask for help.
“I thought (the heart rate monitor) was a neat little feature, but didn’t see myself really using it,” said Houle Sr. “What I thought was so tiny and not important turned out to be a life-changing decision.”
3. Apple Watch Reveals Heart Attack
Dennis Anselmo, a 62-year-old contractor, felt sudden flu-like symptoms while he was working. He checked his Apple Watch and saw that his heart rate had spiked from a healthy 50 bpm to 210 bpm! Anselmo was taken to the ER, where emergency surgeons cleared blockages in his arteries. If Anselmo hadn't called for help, he could have suffered a more serious, and possibly fatal, heart attack.
"I really have to attribute it to the watch," Anselmo told the Daily Mail. "I consider myself very lucky."
4. FitBit Charge HR Confirms Man's Seizure
A 42-year-old-man was rushed to a New Jersey emergency room after suffering from a seizure. Because the man wasn’t showing any symptoms when he arrived, he couldn't tell the ER staff how long he'd been experiencing an accelerated, irregular heartbeat.
So, doctors looked at the Fitbit Charge HR he was wearing to determine that the patient's spike in heart rate had occurred at the time of the seizure — hours before he arrived to the ER. Based on the Fitbit's heart rate data, doctors were able to safely perform an electrical cardioversion (a low-voltage electric jolt) to reset the patient's heart rhythm.
This incident, according to a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, marked the first time doctors used information from a fitness tracker to make a serious medical decision.
5. Fitbit Prevents Grandfather's Heart Attack
Mick Schroeder, a 73-year-old grandfather, didn't know why he suffered from dizzy spells and fainting. His daughter bought him a Fitbit to track his movement in case he had another fainting incident. When she looked at his Fitbit, however, she saw that Schroeder's heart rate fluctuated between 47 and 218 bpm — far off the average heart rate for his age. Schroeder was rushed to emergency surgery, where surgeons doctors implanted a defibrillator above his heart.
"This is a unique situation where we see people detecting their own abnormal heart conditions before we actually know as a group," cardiologist Stuart Healy told an Australian new source. "He could have passed away from this problem.”
Since Schroeder's recovery, he walks almost 5,000 steps a day — no doubt recorded on his life-saving Fitbit — with his dog, Bella.
Are Fitbits Accurate?
Apple Watch and Fitbit heart rate monitors have questionable accuracy. In January, Fitbit customers in three states filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the "PurePulse" heart rate monitor on two Fitbit models, the Surge and Charge HR, show inaccurate readings. And in June 2015, a study by Valencall, a wearable biometric tech company, revealed that the Apple Watch's heart rate monitor is accurate when the user is at rest — but not when the user is in motion.
Wearable fitness trackers won't replace the more precise readings of approved medical devices, but they can make users more aware of abnormal health problems. And in emergency situations, knowing when to seek emergency care can be the difference between life and death.
“A heart rate monitor that’s been shown to not work well during exercise can still save somebody’s life,” Steven LeBoeuf, president of Valencall, told the Huffington Post. “Imagine if we had the technology to measure more of these biometrics more accurately while people do more things — we’re going to see some major life changes."