Why get an electrocardiogram?
An electrocardiogram, more commonly known as an EKG or ECG, is a simple test that monitors the electrical activity of your heart.
When your heart beats, an electrical signal spreads from the top to the bottom of your heart. As it travels, this signal causes your heart to contract and pump blood. This happens with every heartbeat. These electrical signals in your heart set the rhythm of your heartbeat.
You might get an EKG if you’re experiencing a fluttering feeling in your heart or chest pain, or have a family history of irregular heartbeat. You might also get an EKG if you have a family history of sudden death at an early age because of heart problems.
What happens when you get an electrocardiogram?
An EKG is an outpatient procedure that takes only about 10 minutes. To begin, you’ll have somewhere between six and 12 electrodes stuck to your body, generally on your arms, legs and chest. These electrodes are simply sticky pads attached to the surface of your skin.
Your doctor will look at the EKG monitor and be able to determine various things about your heart. For one, your doctor will look at whether your heart rhythm is regular. One of the things your doctor might look for is arrhythmia, a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. When your heart beats too fast, that’s called tachycardia. When it beats too slow, that’s called bradycardia.
An EKG will also tell your doctor about the thickness of your heart muscle. If the voltage is high in certain portions of the EKG, that might tell your doctor that your heart muscle might be thicker than it should be. This could be an early sign of high blood pressure.
Also, a thicker heart muscle could be a risk factor for congestive heart failure. In younger patients, thickness of the heart muscle can also be an indicator for cardiomyopathy, or diseases of the heart muscle, or certain types of valvular heart diseases, such as narrowing of the heart valves.
For people with chest pain, an EKG can sometimes determine whether a person has had a heart attack or help determine a person’s risk of having a heart attack.
Does it hurt?
It shouldn’t. There aren’t needles involved, so the only thing you’ll feel that could hurt is when the medical staff pulls off the electrodes.
What are the risk factors?
There isn’t generally a risk of being electrocuted during an EKG. The electrodes are not emitting electricity but rather recording your heart’s electrical activity.
There’s a rare chance that you might be allergic to the tape on the electrodes. If it does develop, the rash shouldn’t last a long period of time and should go away without treatment.
What’s the follow-up?
What happens after the EKG will depend on what’s found.
If your doctor is concerned about increased thickness of your heart muscle, he or she might order an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the heart. Your doctor might also order an echocardiogram if there’s concern about congestive heart failure.
If your doctor is concerned you are at risk for a heart attack, he or she might recommend you undergo a stress test or an angiogram of your heart. An angiogram is a special X-ray test that shows the insides of your coronary arteries.
As with any medical care, you should talk openly with your doctor and ask questions about any concerns you might have.
Sources: Dr. Rakesh Shrivastava, a cardiologist at Midwest Regional Medical Center; National Institutes of Health; The Mayo Clinic.