What Is an Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)?

What to expect when undergoing this test

The electrocardiogram, also referred to as ECG, 12-lead ECG, or EKG, is a non-invasive diagnostic test that evaluates your heart's electrical system to assess for heart disease. It uses flat metal electrodes placed on your chest to detect the electrical activity of your heart as it beats, which is then graphed.

Your healthcare provider can analyze the patterns to get a better understanding of your heart rate and heart rhythm, identify some types of structural heart disease, and evaluate cardiac efficiency.

what to expect during an electrocardiogram

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Purpose of an EKG Test

An ECG detects your heart's electrical rhythm and produces what's known as a tracing, which looks like squiggly lines. This tracing consists of representations of several waves that recur with each heartbeat, about 60 to 100 times per minute. The wave pattern should have a consistent shape. If your waves are not consistent, or if they do not appear as standard waves, this is indicative of heart disease.

There are a variety of characteristic changes that occur with different heart problems, and your healthcare provider can look at your ECG wave patterns to see if they are suggestive of certain types of heart disease.

Many healthcare providers order an ECG as part of a yearly medical examination to screen for heart disease. This may apply to you if:

  • You have had heart disease or other heart problems in the past.
  • You have a medical condition that predisposes you to heart disease, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, or inflammatory disease.
  • You have other significant risk factors for cardiac disease.

Electrocardiography may also be recommended if you have signs or symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting spells. Likewise, if you have signs of a TIA or stroke, such as vision changes, numbness, weakness, or communication problems, you are also likely to need an ECG because some types of heart disease can cause a stroke.

If you have heart disease, you may need periodic ECG testing to evaluate whether your disease is worsening and to monitor the treatment effects of your heart medications.

An ECG is also required prior to any type of heart surgery, including surgery for pacemaker placement. A pre-operative ECG is also needed before any surgical procedure that involves general anesthesia because heart disease increases the risk of adverse events from anesthesia. The screening also helps your anesthesiologists as they plan your anesthetic medications and surgical monitoring.

Conditions

There are a number of conditions that can be detected when your healthcare provider checks your pulse, such as tachycardia (rapid heart rate), bradycardia (slow heart rate), and arrhythmia (irregular heart rate). EKG wave patterns can verify these alterations in your heart rhythm, and certain changes in the shape of the waves provides information about the specific type of heart disease and which region in the heart is affected.

Limitations

The ECG is one of the most commonly used tests in medicine because it can screen for a large variety of cardiac conditions, the machines are readily available in most medical facilities, the test is simple to perform, is safe, and relatively inexpensive.

That said, an ECG has its limitations:

  • The ECG reveals the heart rate and rhythm only during the few seconds it takes to record the tracing. If an arrhythmia (heart rhythm irregularity) occurs only intermittently, an ECG might not pick it up, and ambulatory monitoring may be required.
  • The ECG is often normal or nearly normal with many types of heart disease, such as coronary artery disease.
  • Sometimes, abnormalities that appear on the ECG turn out to have no medical significance after a thorough evaluation is done.

Risks and Contraindications

ECG is a safe test that does not cause health complications. There are no medical conditions associated with any risks or adverse effects from an ECG.

Before the ECG Test

If your healthcare provider or cardiologist orders an ECG, you generally do not need to have any special tests or procedures to prepare for it. In fact, you can have it right in the healthcare provider's office if there is available time, space, and equipment. Sometimes, depending on the reason for your ECG, your healthcare provider may ask you to stop taking some of your medications for a day or two before the test.

Timing

If you are having an ECG as part of a healthcare provider's visit, anticipate needing an extra 10 to 15 minutes for the test. If you are going to have a special visit for the ECG, you should expect it to take longer because of the registration and check-in process.

Location

Often, an ECG is done in the healthcare provider's office, sometimes in the same exam room where you are seeing the healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider's clinic may have a separate space where you may need to go to have your test.

What to Wear

You will need to change into a hospital gown so that electrodes can be placed on your chest. You may be asked to remove large necklaces or chains if they dangle or get in the way, but you do not need to worry about electrical interference from metal jewelry.

Food and Drink

You can eat or drink whatever you want prior to your test. If your healthcare provider is worried that you have an especially rapid heart rhythm, you may be asked to abstain from caffeine for six to 10 hours before the test.

Cost and Health Insurance

Generally, an ECG is covered by most health insurance plans, but there are always exceptions. If you are insured and concerned that your plan may not cover the test, or if you have a plan with minimal coverage, you might want to check your benefits in advance. As with many procedures, your plan may also require you to pay a copay, and you should be able to find out by calling the number on your insurance card.

What to Bring

When you go for your ECG, you should bring your test order form (if applicable), your health insurance card, a form of identification, and a method of payment.

During the Test

Your test will be performed by a healthcare provider, a nurse, or a technician.

Pre-Test

You will be asked to change into a hospital gown and lie down on an examination table.

Once in position, a total of 10 electrodes are attached with a sticky, but easy-to-remove adhesive. One electrode is placed on each arm and leg, and six on the chest. 

Throughout the Test

Each electrode is a flat, coin-shaped plate with wires attached to the ECG machine, which looks like a computer. The electrodes detect electrical activity produced by the heart and transmit this information to the machine, where it is processed and saved electronically or printed out as an ECG tracing.

Readings will be taken for about five minutes. During this time, you will be asked to remain still, as movement can disrupt the pattern. There is no pain or discomfort associated with this test.

Post-Test

After the test, the electrodes are removed. If there is any sticky material remaining, it can be easily wiped off with an alcohol pad. You may experience some pulling of hair underneath the nodes, but generally, the technicians are very careful with taking them off.

You should not expect any side effects after an ECG, and there are no limitations on your activity.

Rarely, the adhesive can cause allergic reactions or rashes, which may not be obvious until about 24 hours after the test. If you experience a rash in the area of the electrodes, call your healthcare provider.

Interpreting the ECG Results

The electrical signals generated from the electrodes are processed to obtain the heart’s electrical activity from 12 different angles, each of which shows a separate tracing. By examining any abnormalities on the ECG and which leads they are stemming from, your healthcare provider can get important clues about the status of the heart. Learning to read an ECG and recognize these patterns takes months of training and practice.

The Tracing

A tracing consists of repeated waves that have a standard shape. The waves have sections named the P wave, QRS complex, ST segment, and T wave. There is also a PR interval between the P wave and the QRS complex, and a QT interval between the QRS complex and the T wave.

Different conditions are associated with changes in the height, width, and length of these waves, and the intervals between them. A shortened QT interval, for example, can be a sign of elevated blood calcium levels.

Your ECG report may have a description of the wave pattern but is unlikely to describe your heart condition in detail. Your healthcare provider needs to take your symptoms and medical history into account when determining whether or not you could have a heart condition.

Your healthcare provider will be able to explain your results to you. Among many things, an ECG can indicate:

Follow-Up

While the ECG can make a clear diagnosis of some cardiac conditions, such as a cardiac arrhythmia, it is more often used as a screening test. Therefore, abnormalities seen on the ECG often need to be followed by a more definitive test in order to make a firm diagnosis.

For instance, If the ECG indicates possible coronary artery disease, a stress test or cardiac catheterization might be needed. If ventricular hypertrophy is seen, an echocardiogram is often needed to check for diseases such as aortic stenosis or other structural abnormalities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram?

An electrocardiogram is a test performed by placing electrodes on the chest, arms, and legs to record the activity of the heart. This test is used to detect an irregular heartbeat and damage to the heart muscle or tissue. An echocardiogram uses high-frequency sound waves to take a picture of the heart and is used to see how well the heart pumps blood and blood clots, among other things,

How are electrocardiograms (ECG) performed on women?

Electrocardiograms are performed the same way regardless of sex. Electrodes are placed on the chest, arms, and legs, and the heart's electrical activity is recorded on a graph. However, the results are interpreted differently in women due to the fact that women have a faster baseline heart rate and other differences in heart rhythm than men.

How do you read an ECG or EKG?

The electrical signals generated from the electrodes are processed to obtain the heart’s electrical activity from 12 different angles, each of which shows a separate tracing in the form of waves. Different conditions are associated with changes in the height, width, and length of these waves.

A Word From Verywell

If you have an ECG as a routine test or because you have symptoms, it is a good idea to let your healthcare providers know about any previous ECGs and save your tracings so that you can show them to your healthcare providers when you have subsequent tests. This can allow your healthcare providers to compare and look for changes over time. Remember that this test is very common and your healthcare provider recommending it isn't a confirmation that there is a problem with your heart.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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