Every day, healthcare providers use electrocardiogram (EKG) machines to diagnose and treat patients. Medical care providers use EKGs in clinics, hospitals, operating rooms, and ambulances. Discover everything you should know about using EKG machines.
An electrocardiogram, also known as an EKG or ECG, is a medical device that measures the heart’s electrical signals. EKGs use electrodes attached to a person’s skin to capture their heart’s activity. The signals are then transmitted to the device through lead wires, and a computer records and interprets the information.
Doctors monitor the heart’s electrical activity to uncover the cause of chest pain or other symptoms of heart disease. The EKG doesn’t provide treatment, but the data from the test can improve treatment delivery time and quality.
When used as part of a routine physical, the EKG records the baseline of a patient’s heart health. By comparing future readings with the baseline reading, medical professionals can track changes or regularity in a patient’s heart.
How EKG Machines Work
Understanding the anatomy and physiology of the heart will help you understand how EKG machines work. The heart has two upper chambers, called atria, and two lower chambers, called ventricles. The atria receive blood and the ventricles pump blood away from the heart.
An EKG measures the electrical stimulus that causes the heart to pump. Electrodes attached to the patient’s chest, arms, and legs detect cardiac electrical activity, then transmit the signals to the EKG’s computer. The activity appears as an image on a screen or printed on paper. The image looks like a line graph with peaks and dips.
There are three waves of signals: the P wave, the QRS wave, and the T wave. Doctors look at the shape and size of waves, the time between waves, and the rate and regularity of beating to determine heart health.
The P wave indicates the electrical impulse in the atria. The QRS wave shows electrical activity in the ventricles. The T wave reflects the heart at rest between beats.
The most common EKG is the resting 12-lead EKG, which is covered in detail in this article. Two other types are the ambulatory EKG and the stress test EKG. An ambulatory EKG, also called a Holter monitor, continuously monitors the heart over a period of 24 hours or longer. A stress test EKG takes place while a patient exercises, typically by running on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike.
Reasons To Get an EKG
A physician will request an EKG to evaluate a person’s heart for complications or risks, often based on the results of a physical exam or symptoms the patient experiences. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to a compilation of heart disease facts from the CDC, one person in the US dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease.
This non-invasive, quick, and painless test saves lives. The following list contains some of the symptoms that might make a physician request an EKG:
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid pulse
- Shortness of breath
When analyzing the EKG lines, the doctor looks for an irregular heart rhythm, blocked or narrowing arteries, evidence of a previous heart attack, or how well a pacemaker or other device is working.
A silent heart attack has few or no symptoms and elevates your risk of experiencing another heart attack or heart failure. Symptoms can be mild, such as chest pain that feels like indigestion. This is one clear situation in which an EKG can provide crucial information.
Risks of an Electrocardiogram
Before any medical test or procedure, it’s important to know the associated risks. Fortunately, risks associated with EKG are minimal and rare. There is no risk of electrical shock as the electrodes only record the heart’s electrical activity.
You will not feel anything during the EKG from the device itself. You might feel slight discomfort when the electrodes are removed from your skin, which feels like having a sticky bandage removed. Also, the patches can cause skin irritation.
If you have a medical condition, you might have other risks. Discuss any concerns with your doctor before the test. Factors and conditions that can interfere with or affect the results of the EKG include, but are not limited to, obesity, pregnancy, exercising or smoking before the test, and some medication.
Tell your doctor about all prescribed and over-the-counter medicines you take, as well as herbs, vitamins, and supplements. Also, tell your doctor if you have a pacemaker.
Steps of an Electrocardiogram
The electrocardiogram can be done as part of outpatient care or during a hospital stay. The specific steps taken during the EKG depend on the patient’s condition and the doctor ordering the test.
Before the procedure, the patient might change into a hospital gown and will remove jewelry or other objects that may interfere with the test. Electronic devices, such as smartphones, can produce interference and create problems for the EKG machine.
If body hair will interfere with the electrode patches sticking to the skin, the care provider may shave or clip small sections of hair as needed. The skin should be dry and oil-free so the electrodes can have full contact with the skin. Up to 12 electrodes will be attached to the patient’s chest, arms, and legs.
During the exam, the patient will lie on an examination table or bed. The patient should have their arms at their sides, shoulders relaxed, and legs uncrossed.
Patients should feel warm and ready to lie still before starting the test. One of the most important things you should know about using EKG machines is that moving, talking, and shivering can interfere with test results.
The person placing the electrodes will attach them to the patient’s chest, arms, and legs. Then, they will attach lead wires to the electrodes. Next, the technician might enter identifying information about the patient into the machine’s computer.
The EKG will then start recording electrical activity. Tracing usually takes 5 to 10 minutes to complete. Once finished, the technician will disconnect the leads and remove the electrodes from the patient.
Patients can typically return to their usual activities after an EKG. The healthcare provider might discuss results with the patient on the same day as the procedure, or at the patient’s next appointment.
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