An electrocardiogram is a common medical test for determining heart health. You may also hear this test referred to as an EKG or ECG. An EKG machine consists of electrodes that attach to the body and a device for recording data. Electrocardiograms are performed routinely at Baptist Health hospitals and in our physician offices.
What Is an Electrocardiogram (EKG)?
An electrocardiogram is a test of your heart’s electrical activity. Every beat of your heart is accompanied by an electrical pulse, which, when recorded by the EKG, can be used by your physician to detect possible heart ailments or conditions. He or she can determine this by the duration, intensity, and pattern of the pulses, which represent the amount of time and energy required by your heart to move blood through the chambers.
EKGs are safe, painless, and non-invasive, with almost no side effects. They are conducted in a variety of medical settings, including physician offices, clinics, hospitals, and ambulances. Results are obtained quickly and interpreted easily by individuals with appropriate medical training.
Why Are EKGs Done?
Physicians use EKGs to diagnose a wide variety of heart ailments or conditions. These include:
- Irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias
- Previously undetected heart attacks
- Coronary artery disease, including blocked or narrowed arteries
- Structural deficiencies of the heart
EKGs are also used to provide baseline information before surgery and check the effectiveness of pacemakers, medicines, and other treatments for heart disease.
Please see your physician if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms. He or she may arrange for you to have an EKG:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness, disorientation, or confusion
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid pulse
- Physical weakness or fatigue
Additional Types of Heart Rhythm Monitoring
EKGs are a short-term measure of heart activity. A typical test lasts no more than ten minutes, from the attachment of the electrodes to the recording of the data. In some cases, your physician may require additional data to properly diagnose your condition. He or she may recommend a test with another type of heart-rhythm monitor. These tests include:
- Holter monitor: You can think of a Holter monitor as a long-term EKG. It’s a small device with electrodes that you wear continuously, typically for 24 or 48 hours. It records your heart’s electrical activity the entire time that it’s attached to your body. A Holter monitor increases the chance of capturing an unusual episode of heart rate activity.
- Event monitor: An event monitor is similar to a Holter monitor but only records cardiac activity at certain designated periods. You can wear an event monitor for longer periods of time, often for as many as 30 days.
- Stress test: For some people, chest pain and other symptoms of a possible heart condition only occur during physical exertion. If that’s your case, your physician may arrange for you to have an EKG while you exercise. You will walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike while being monitored by the physician and his or her medical team.
- Implantable loop recorder: An implantable loop recorder is essentially a Holter monitor that is surgically implanted in the chest area. It will record cardiac activity as long it remains in place (often up to three years).
What Does an Electrocardiogram Show?
An electrocardiogram is like a map of your heart pumping blood. It consists of a single line, running left to right, with peaks, valleys, and flat line segments. The data that makes up the line comes from your heart’s electrical activity, which occurs in conjunction with blood flow through the heart.
The most important components of an EKG are the P wave, the QRS complex, and the T wave. The P wave, or first small peak, occurs as blood flows through the heart’s upper chambers. The QRS complex, which sandwiches the highest peak between two small dips, represents movement through the lower chambers. The T wave, a second small peak, is part of the recovery phase. These components repeat following a flat line segment, starting with another P wave (that is, new blood entering the heart’s upper chambers).
How to Prepare for an EKG
Preparing for an EKG is easy. Here are a few common-sense guidelines:
- Don’t apply lotions or skin creams beforehand
- Don’t wear hosiery or leggings
- Inform your physician of any prescription or over-the-counter medications you’re taking
- Let him or her know if you have a pacemaker
There are no fasting or purgation requirements prior to having an electrocardiogram.
What to Expect During an EKG
An EKG typically involves the following steps:
- Upon arrival at the hospital or treatment facility, you’ll be asked to remove jewelry and any other unnecessary cosmetic items.
- You’ll remove your clothes and put on a hospital gown.
- You’ll lay down on an examination table or bed.
- Electrodes will be attached to your chest, arms, and legs. If needed, a medical technician will shave any hair that might interfere with the EKG reading.
- Lead wires will be connected to the electrodes.
- The EKG machine will be started. The actual process of data collection takes no more than a few seconds.
- When the EKG is done, the technician will remove the wires and electrodes and you will be able to dress again
Getting Your Electrocardiogram Results
Test results will usually be available that same day. Your physician will tell you if you require additional testing, such as an echocardiogram.
A healthy heart produces an EKG with a regularly spaced sequence of peaks and valleys, and a heart rate between 50 and 100 beats per minute. If the EKG pattern is irregular, elongated, or compressed, it may indicate one or more of the following medical issues:
- A heart rate that is too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia)
- An irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
- A heart attack, either in progress or previously undetected
- A reduced blood and oxygen supply to the heart
- A heart defect or other structural abnormality