An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is a common test used to record the electrical signals in the heart. An ECG can detect heart problems and monitor its status.

What is an electrocardiogram?

An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is a common test used to record the electrical signals in the heart. An ECG can detect heart problems and monitor its status. They are very commonly found in ambulances, operating rooms, clinics and doctor’s offices. Electrocardiograms are painless and noninvasive and can be used to detect:

  • Arrhythmias (irregularities in your heart rhythm)
  • Issues with the structure of a heart’s chambers
  • Blocked or narrow arteries in the heart (coronary artery disease)
  • How well a pacemaker or other heart disease treatments are working
  • Previous heart attacks

If you suffer from heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, a rapid pulse, dizziness, fatigue or a decline in your ability to exercise, then a heart rhythm test may be needed. If you are not experiencing these symptoms and you do not have a high risk for them, an EKG is not recommended.

How does it work?

Pacemaker cells (located in the upper right chamber of the heart) generate electrical impulses that trigger every single beat of your heart. An electrocardiogram records the strength and timing of these impulses as they travel through the heart. Using 10 electrodes (sticky patches) that are placed on your skin and chest, electrical activity is recorded as waves on a graph and the different patterns correspond to the electrical phases of your heartbeat. Electrocardiograms are known as 12-lead ECGs/EKGs because they gather information from 12 different areas of the heart.

Standard ECGs can only record abnormal heart rhythms only when happen during the test. Since abnormal heart rhythms come and go, your doctor may have you wear a heart rhythm monitor to help diagnose the cause of your symptoms. Two common heart rhythm monitoring devices are Holter monitors and event monitors.

A Holter monitor is a small, wearable device that records a continuous electrocardiogram for 24-48 hours. The recording device can be carried in your pocket or worn on your belt. While you wear it, you will be asked to go about your normal routine. You will likely be asked to keep a diary during this time so that your doctor can compare what you’ve written to the electrical recordings. If you aren’t given a Holter monitor, you may receive an event monitor from your doctor. An event monitor is similar to a Holter device, but it only records at certain times for a couple of minutes. It is also worn much longer–typically 30 days.

What can I expect?

Whether you are in a doctor’s office or at the hospital, you will be asked to change into a hospital gown before the EKG. You will lie down and the 10 electrodes will be attached to your chest, and in some cases, your limbs. Each electrode has a wire that is attached a monitor. If you have hair on the parts of your body where the electrodes need to be attached, the performing technician may shave them so that electrode patches stick.

You will be asked to breathe normally during the exam. Moving, shivering and talking can potentially distort the results, so you will be asked to remain still. Standard electrocardiograms only last a few minutes. Your heart beat impulses are recorded by a computer and are displayed as waves on a monitor or are printed on paper. Your doctor will review the recordings to see if they are traveling normally. The results are typically given to you during your appointment, but your doctor may schedule a follow-up appointment to review them with you. You’ll be able to return to your normal routine immediately after your appointment.

If your results are normal, you may not need further tests. If there are abnormalities with your heart, a second ECG or an echocardiogram may be recommended by your doctor.

If your electrocardiogram is normal, you may not need any other tests. If the results show an abnormality with your heart, you may need another ECG or other diagnostic tests, such as an echocardiogram (a sonogram of the heart). Your treatment will depend on what’s causing your signs and symptoms.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns, or if you’d like to learn more about the risks of an electrocardiogram, talk to the team at North Coast Family Medical Group. If you live in Encinitas or San Diego County in California, we are your go-to source for medical information and treatment. Call today at (760) 942-0118.

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