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What is an Electrocardiogram?

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  • Written By: Nat Robinson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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An electrocardiogram is a medical test usually done to examine electrical activity in the heart. Often, the test is simply referred to as an EKG or an ECG. The test records the electrical signals that cause the heart to beat. Some doctors perform electrocardiograms as part of a normal yearly physical examination. Individuals with an established or assumed heart condition may have the test more regularly.

Doctors use electrocardiograms to diagnose different types of heart abnormalities. Patients who come to their doctor with symptoms such as chest pain, heaviness in the chest, dizziness or shortness of breath may have this test. It is often used as a first predictor of a heart problem. The test is often performed to detect an arrhythmia or abnormal heart rhythm as well. An electrocardiogram can precisely show the rate at which the heart is beating and whether or not the rhythm of the beat is normal.

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There can be alternative reasons why a person may have this test. An individual who has had a heart attack may have an electrocardiogram to see how much damage the attack created. People on heart medications may have the test to see if the medications are doing their job. For instance, an individual with a heart arrhythmia may have an EKG to see if the medicines are correcting the abnormal beats. People with an artificial cardiovascular device such as a pacemaker may undergo electrocardiograms to ensure the pacemaker is working as it should.

To prepare for an electrocardiogram test, an individual will usually be asked to avoid stressful or demanding activities. This will typically include anything that may cause the heart rate to significantly increase. It is also important to let the doctor know if heart medications are currently being taken. Any type of heart medicine may greatly affect the results of this diagnostic test.

Patients will lie down for the test to be performed. Electrodes, which are small discs made of metal, will be attached to the chest and other areas, such as the arms and often legs. Prior to the attachment of the electrodes, the areas will be thoroughly cleaned. The electrodes will be hooked to a device which will record the electrical activity and capture the results on a paper printout. While the test is taking place, it will be important to remain quiet and very still, as movement may obstruct the test results.

Generally, an electrocardiogram, is considered a painless test. The electrodes may be particularly cold as they are applied to the skin and when the small devices are taken off, the sensation may be similar to taking off a plastic bandage. If a general internist or family doctor conducts the test and the results are abnormal, the patient may be sent to a specialist for a follow-up evaluation. In most cases, the doctor will be a cardiologist, who is a doctor specializing in cardiovascular disorders and diseases.

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