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Electrocardiogram

Test Overview

An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart. An EKG translates the heart's electrical activity into line tracings on paper. The spikes and dips in the line tracings are called waves.

The heart is a muscular pump made up of four chambers. The two upper chambers are called atria, and the two lower chambers are called ventricles. A natural electrical system causes the heart muscle to contract and pump blood through the heart to the lungs and the rest of the body.

Why It Is Done

An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is done to:

  • Check the heart's electrical activity.
  • Find the cause of unexplained chest pain, which could be caused by a heart attack, inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart (pericarditis), or angina.
  • Find the cause of symptoms of heart disease, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or rapid, irregular heartbeats (palpitations).
  • Find out if the walls of the heart chambers are too thick (hypertrophied).
  • Check how well medicines are working and whether they are causing side effects that affect the heart.
  • Check how well mechanical devices that are implanted in the heart, such as pacemakers, are working to control a normal heartbeat.
  • Check the health of the heart when other diseases or conditions are present, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, diabetes, or a family history of early heart disease.

How To Prepare

Many medicines may change the results of this test. Be sure to tell your doctor about all the nonprescription and prescription medicines you take. If you take heart medicines, your doctor will tell you how to take your medicines before you have this test.

Remove all jewelry from your neck, arms, and wrists. Men are usually bare-chested during the test. Women may often wear a bra, T-shirt, or gown. You will be given a cloth or paper covering to use during the test.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form (What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is usually done by a health professional, and the resulting EKG is interpreted by a doctor, such as an internist, family medicine doctor, electrophysiologist, cardiologist, anesthesiologist, or surgeon.

You may receive an EKG as part of a physical examination at your health professional's office or during a series of tests at a hospital or clinic. EKG equipment is often portable, so the test can be done almost anywhere. If you are in the hospital, your heart may be continuously monitored by an EKG system; this process is called telemetry.

During an EKG:

  • You will lie on a bed or table. Areas on your arms, legs, and chest where small metal discs (electrodes) will be placed are cleaned and may be shaved to provide a clean, smooth surface to attach the electrode discs. A special EKG paste or small pads soaked in alcohol may be placed between the electrodes and your skin to improve conduction of the electrical impulses, but in many cases disposable electrodes are used that do not require paste or alcohol.
  • Several electrodes are attached to the skin on each arm and leg and on your chest. These are hooked to a machine that traces your heart activity onto a paper. If an older machine is used, the electrodes may be moved at different times during the test to measure your heart's electrical activity from different locations on your chest. After the procedure, the electrode paste is wiped off.
  • You will be asked to lie very still and breathe normally during the test. Sometimes you may be asked to hold your breath. You should not talk during the test.

The test usually takes 5 to 10 minutes to complete.

How It Feels

The electrodes may feel cool when they are put on your chest. If you have a lot of hair on your chest, a small area may need to be shaved to put the electrodes on. When the electrodes are taken off, they may pull your skin a little.

Risks

There is no chance of problems while having an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a completely safe test. In most cases, there is no reason why you should not be able to get an EKG.

The electrodes are used to transfer an image of the electrical activity of your heart to tracing on paper. No electricity passes through your body from the machine, and there is no danger of getting an electrical shock.

Results

An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart. An EKG translates the heart's electrical activity into line tracings on paper. The spikes and dips in the line tracings are called waves.

Your doctor will look at the pattern of spikes and dips on your electrocardiogram to check the electrical activity in different parts of your heart. The spikes and dips are grouped into different sections that show how your heart is working.

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) results
Normal:

The heart beats in a regular rhythm, usually between 60 and 100 beats per minute.

The tracing looks normal.

Abnormal:

The heart beats too slow (such as less

than 60 beats per minute).

The heart beats too fast (such as more than 100 beats per minute).

The heart rhythm is not regular.

The tracing does not look normal.

 

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

  • Not having the electrodes securely attached to your skin.
  • Moving or talking during the test.
  • Exercising before the test.
  • Being anxious or breathing very deeply or rapidly.

What To Think About

  • Sometimes your EKG may look normal even when you have heart disease. For this reason, the EKG should always be interpreted along with your symptoms, past health, physical examination, and, if necessary, other test results.
  • An electrocardiogram cannot predict whether you will have a heart attack.
  • At first, an EKG done during a heart attack may look normal or unchanged from a previous EKG. So the EKG may be repeated over several hours and days (called serial EKGs) to look for changes.
  • Sometimes EKG abnormalities can be seen only during exercise or while symptoms are present. To check for these changes in the heartbeat, an ambulatory EKG or stress EKG may be done.
    • An ambulatory EKG is a type of portable, continuous EKG monitor. To learn more, see the topic Ambulatory Electrocardiogram.
    • A stress EKG is a type of EKG done during exercise. A resting EKG is always done before an exercise EKG test, and results of the resting EKG are compared to the results of the exercise EKG. A resting EKG may also show a heart problem that would make an exercise EKG unsafe. To learn more, see the topic Exercise Electrocardiogram.
  • Electrocardiograms are not recommended for people who are healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease.1
  • Sometimes doctors automatically schedule routine tests because they think that's what patients expect. But experts say routine heart tests can be a waste of time and money. To learn more, see Heart Tests: When Do You Need Them?

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX  75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address: www.heart.org
 

Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.


Heart Rhythm Society
Web Address: www.hrsonline.org

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD  20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Email: nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
 

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

  • Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
  • Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.

References

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2012). Screening for coronary heart disease with electrocardiography: Recommendation statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsacad.htm.

Other Works Consulted

  • Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
  • Chou R, et al. (2011). Screening asymptomatic adults with resting or exercise electrocardiography: A review of the evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Annals of Internal Medicine, 155(6): 375–385.
  • Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2012). Screening for coronary heart disease with electrocardiography: Recommendation statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsacad.htm.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
George Philippides, MD - Cardiology
Last Revised September 11, 2012

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