Understanding Electrocardiograms

A painless and useful test, an electrocardiogram – or ECG – measures the electrical activity of the heart. An electrocardiogram may also be called an EKG (the K stands for the Greek word “kardia”). By monitoring the heart’s electrical activity, an ECG can help a healthcare provider learn a great deal about the health of the heart and the source and location of any problems.

For example, an ECG can detect:

  • disturbances of the heart’s rhythm or rate;
  • abnormalities in the axis,
  • the direction of the heart’s electrical flow:
  • an enlargement of the heart;
  • and damage from a previous heart attack.

Simply put, heartbeats are the result of electrical activity in the cells of the heart. These electrical impulses cause the muscles of the heart to contract and relax in a regular rhythm, creating the pumping action that moves the blood through the body’s circulatory system. The ECG records the patterns of that electrical activity.

An ECG takes about 15 minutes and is administered while the patient is lying down. Sometimes the patient will be asked to exercise on an exercise bike or treadmill. This is called a stress ECG. Electrodes, called leads, are attached to the chest with a light adhesive and connected by wires to the electrocardiograph, the machine that records the heart’s electrical impulses. Different placements and combinations of leads provide different views of the heart, usually 12.

The electrocardiograph prints a permanent record of the test on a strip of ruled graph paper so the healthcare provider can examine and evaluate the results later.

To learn more about electrocardiograms and how they relate to your personal medical needs, talk to your healthcare provider.

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