The thought of an electrocardiogram (or ECG) can be frightening, but that should not be the case. As indicated by its name, an ECG is a test designed to check the electrical activity of one’s heart. The physical result of the test is a graph of line tracings called “waves.”
Who needs an ECG?
If you have experienced chest pains, unusual breathing problems, fainting, dizziness and palpitations, or have a history of high cholesterol or blood pressure, your doctor may suggest that you receive an electrocardiogram. If you have a pacemaker, your doctor may require you to have an ECG as part of a checkup. It is also not uncommon to have an ECG prior to major surgery.
What happens during an ECG?
An ECG procedure is painless and now only takes about 10 minutes. Despite its name, the procedure does not give off any electrical charge, and will not harm you. Prior to the procedure, notify your physician if you are on any medications, as they may alter the results. Men typically go through the procedure shirtless, while women often wear a medical gown.
A technician will place 12 quarter-sized electrodes (sticky, circular patches) to your arms, legs, and of course, chest, while you lay flat. In the recent past, technicians had to move these electrical sensing devices to different spots throughout the test. But today, the process is much quicker, simpler and streamlined. Sometimes, however, the technician will use a small amount of gel to apply the electrodes to encourage a better electrical impulse transmission. And occasionally, men might have to shave certain areas to allow for proper contact of skin and electrode. Some patients develop a small rash where skin touches the electrodes; this typically goes away on its own.
This efficient test is the standard ECG – sometimes called the 12-lead ECG because of the 12 sensing devices used to record electrical activity – which can trace a heart problem only if it occurs during the procedure. Some problems such as heartbeat irregularities only happen a couple of times a day, and will not be picked up by a standard ECG. This is why patients may receive a portable Philips Zymed Holter recorder, or a small device that will monitor the heart’s electrical activity during your daily routine.
Doctors may also choose to conduct a stress test, in which the patient’s heart rate is accelerated by taking special medication or by exercising. The accelerated heartbeat sometimes makes it easier for physicians to diagnose heart problems.
What do ECG results mean?
Upon completion of the ECG, the physician or cardiologist will study the graph’s waves. Doctors can determine myriad conditions from an ECG, even those that were not anticipated. ECG results can show heart birth defects, sac inflammation, problems with heart valves, abnormally slow or fast heart rhythms and blood flow.
After an ECG, you can most likely go back to your normal routine. The patient whose procedure shows any of these symptoms will require further evaluation, testing and treatment by a medical professional.