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Electrocardiogram

What is an Electrocardiogram (ECG)?

An ECG is a test that measures the electrical impulses produced by the heart. These impulses spread through heart enabling contraction. A typical ECG take approximately 10 minutes to perform.

Why should I have the test?

One of the most common heart tests, an ECG is the only way of identifying certain problems with the heart's electrical impulses. There are a number of reasons why someone may have an ECG including, significantly high blood pressure an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath when they exert themselves, palpitations or a suspected heart valve problem. An ECG is also commonly used in screening for ruling out potential heart problems.

What does the test involve?

In an ECG 10 electrodes are used to record 12 different views of your heart's electrical activity. A sticky pad attaches an electrode to each ankle and wrist and six more are attached to the chest. The test is undertaken lying down and it is important that time is given for the patient to relax before the ECG begins allowing time for the connections to stabilise. Once relaxed the test begins and the electrical activity is recorded on the ECG machine.

Will it hurt?

No, it is completely painless.

Are there any after effects?

Normally there are no after effects, however in some very rare cases somebody might have a very small skin reaction to the electrodes.

What can an ECG result show?

The different locations of the electrodes on the body help measure electrical activity of different parts of the heart. There are several characteristic patterns in the ECG that are used to assess whether the heart's electrical activity is 'normal' or if there appears to be a problem. Heart disorders which can be detected from an ECG test include the following:

  • irregular heartbeat (an arrhythmia)
  • an enlarged heart
  • areas of the heart with reduced blood supply
  • a 'silent' heart attack (an interruption to blood flow in the coronary arteries without usual heart attack symptoms).
  • Reduced blood flow to the heart muscle
  • Signs of a new or previous injury to the heart
  • Abnormal electrical conduction (pattern and duration) in the heart

Limitations

An ECG is a very helpful test for evaluating the heart's function and identifying possible underlying issues. However, the results of an ECG are often undefined, meaning that abnormal findings do not always diagnose a specific problem or disease. It should also be noted a normal ECG does not rule out heart disease completely. Because of this, additional tests (i.e. Echocardiogram) are often necessary to provide a more complete evaluation of heart function.

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