Electrocardiography is a commonly used, noninvasive procedure for recording electrical changes in the heart. The record, which is called an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), shows the series of waves that relate to the electrical impulses that occur during each beat of the heart. The results are printed on paper and/or displayed on a monitor to provide a visual representation of heart function. The waves in a normal record are named P, Q, R, S, and T, and follow in alphabetical order. The number of waves may vary, and other waves may be present.
Electrocardiography is a starting point for detecting many cardiac problems, including angina pectoris, stable angina, ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), tachycardia (fast heartbeat), bradycardia (slow heartbeat), myocardial infarction (heart attack), and certain congenital heart conditions. It is used routinely in physical examinations and for monitoring a patient's condition during and after surgery, as well as in the intensive care setting. It is the basic measurement used in exercise tolerance tests (i.e., stress tests) and is also used to evaluate symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 23 million EKG procedures were performed in doctor's offices in the year 2000.
Men are more likely to experience heart attacks than women, although a woman's risk of heart attack rises after menopause. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are all at greater risk for cardiovascular disease than Caucasians, in part because of the higher incidence of diabetes mellitus (a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease) in these populations.
The patient disrobes from the waist up, and electrodes (tiny wires in adhesive pads) are applied to specific sites on the arms, legs, and chest. When attached, these electrodes are called leads; three to 12 leads may be employed for the procedure.
Muscle movement may interfere with the recording, which lasts for several beats of the heart. In cases where rhythm disturbances are suspected to be infrequent, the patient may wear a small Holter monitor in order to record continuously over a 24-hour period. This is known as ambulatory monitoring.
Special training is required for interpretation of the electrocardiogram. To summarize in the simplest manner the features used in interpretations, the P wave of the electrocardiogram is associated with the contraction of the atria—the two chambers of the heart that receive blood from the veins. The QRS series of waves, or QRS complex, is associated with ventricular contraction, with the T wave coming after the contraction. The ventricles are the two chambers of the heart that receive blood from the atria and that send the blood into the arteries. Finally, the P-Q or P-R interval gives a value for the time taken for the electrical impulse to travel from the atria to the ventricle (normally less than 0.2 seconds).
Patients are asked not to eat for several hours before a stress test . Before the leads are attached, the skin is cleaned to obtain good electrical contact at the electrode positions and, occasionally, shaving the chest may be necessary.
Heart problems are diagnosed by the pattern of electrical waves produced during the EKG, and an abnormal rhythm can be called dysrhythmia. The cause of dysrhythmia is ectopic beats. Ectopic beats are premature heartbeats that arise from a site other than the sinus node—commonly from the atria, atrioventricular node, or the ventricle. When these dysrhythmias are only occasional, they may produce no symptoms or simply a feeling that the heart is turning over or "flip-flopping." These occasional dysrhythmias are common in healthy people, but they also can be an indication of heart disease.
The varied sources of dysrhythmias provide a wide range of alterations in the form of the electrocardiogram. Ectopic beats display an abnormal QRS complex. This can indicate disease associated with insufficient blood supply to the heart muscle (myocardial ischemia). Multiple ectopic sites lead to rapid and uncoordinated contractions of the atria or ventricles. This condition is known as fibrillation. When the atrial impulse fails to reach the ventricle, a condition known as heart block results.
To avoid skin irritation from the salty gel used to obtain good electrical contact, the skin should be thoroughly cleaned after removal of the electrodes.
The EKG is a noninvasive procedure that is virtually risk-free for the patient. There is a slight risk of heart attack for individuals undergoing a stress test EKG, but patients are carefully screened for their suitability for this test before it is prescribed.
Risk factors for heart disease include obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), high triglycerides and total blood cholesterol, low HDL ("good") cholesterol, tobacco smoking, and increased age. People who have diabetes mellitus (either type 1 or type 2) are also at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
When the heart is operating normally, each part contracts in a specific order. Contraction of the muscle is triggered by an electrical impulse. These electrical impulses travel through specialized cells that form a conduction system. Following this pathway ensures that contractions will occur in a coordinated manner.
When the presence of all waves is observed in the electrocardiogram, and these waves follow the order defined alphabetically, the heart is said to show a normal sinus rhythm, and impulses may be assumed to be following the regular conduction pathway.
In the normal heart, electrical impulses—at a rate of 60–100 times per minute—originate in the sinus node. The sinus node is located in the first chamber of the heart, known as the right atrium, where blood reenters the heart after circulating through the body. After traveling down to the junction between the upper and lower chambers, the signal stimulates the atrioventricular node. From here, after a delay, it passes by specialized routes through the lower chambers or ventricles. In many disease states, the passage of the electrical impulse can be interrupted in a variety of ways, causing the heart to perform less efficiently.
The heart is described as showing arrhythmia or dysrhythmia when time intervals between waves, or the order or the number of waves do not fit the normal pattern described above. Other features that may be altered include the direction of wave deflection and wave widths.
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. It is also the leading cause of death among people with diabetes.
Electrocardiography is the gold standard for detecting heart conditions involving irregularities in electrical conduction and rhythm. Other tests that may be used in conjunction with an EKG include an echocardiogram (a sonogram of the heart's pumping action) and a stress test—an EKG that is done in conjunction with treadmill or other supervised exercise to observe the heart's function under stress—may also be performed.
Beasley, Brenda. Understanding EKGs: A Practical Approach. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Kadish, Alan, et al. "ACC/AHA Clinical Competence Statement on Electrocardiography and Ambulatory Electrocardiography." Journal of The American College of Cardiology 38, no. 7 (2001). http://www.acc.org/clinical/competence/ECG/pdfs/ECG_pdf.pdf. .
Fergusun, J. D., et al. "The Prehospital 12-Lead Electrocardiogram: Impact on Management of the Out-of-hospital Acute Coronary Syndrome Patient." American Journal of Emergency Medicine 21, no. 2 (March 2003): 136–42.
The American College of Cardiology. Heart House, 9111 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD 20814-1699. (800) 253-4636. http://www.acc.org .
American Heart Association. 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX 75231. (800) 242-8721. http://www.americanheart.org .
Maggie Boleyn, R.N., B.S.N. Paula Ford-Martin
The electrocardiograph is conducted by a fully trained technologist and may be done in the cardiologist's office, a testing facility, or at a hospital patient's bedside. The technologist, or perhaps a nurse or nurse practitioner, will take the patient's medical history, educate them about the procedure they are about to undergo, and help them relax. The results of the electrocardiograph will be interpreted by a qualified physician, usually a cardiologist.