Electrocardiogram Patient Education – Overview
Electrocardiogram (ECG) is one of the fastest and simplest tests used to check the electrical activity of the heart. Small plastic electrodes in patches are stuck to the skin at certain spots on the chest, legs and arms. These electrodes connect to an ECG machine by lead wires.
The ECG machine is able to measure, interpret and then print out the heart’s electrical activity, but without sending any electrical signal into the body.
The contractions of the heart are controlled by natural electrical impulses to ensure that the blood keeps flowing effortlessly throughout the body. An ECG test can record these tiny electrical pulses and measure the pace of the heartbeat along with its rhythm.
It also measures the timing and strength of the electrical pulse as it moves through the different sections of the heart. A change in the ECG test can indicate the presence of a heart-related health condition.
When would you need an Electrocardiogram?
Some of the most common reasons that doctors may recommend you to undergo an ECG test include:
- Checking for the cause of chest pain
- Identifying irregular heartbeat
- Evaluating problems that are heart-related (like fainting, tiredness, shortness of breath, etc.)
- Determining the overall health of the heart before and after cardiac surgeries
- Seeing how an implanted pacemaker is working
- Determining how well certain heart medications are working
- Getting a baseline tracing of the heart’s function during a physical exam
There may be some other rare reasons that a doctor may prescribe an ECG test for you too.
Are there Any Risks of an Electrocardiogram?
An electrocardiogram (ECG) is an easy, quick way to measure the heart’s functions. The main risks usually associated with ECG are nominal and quite rare.
You will not feel any sort of discomfort or pain during an ECG test as it is a completely non-invasive diagnostic measure. However, you may feel a numb sensation when the electrode patches are removed from your chest, arms or legs.
In case the electrode patches are left on the body for too long they can also cause skin irritation by tissue breakdown.
There are other risks you may face during an ECG, but it depends on your specific medical conditions. Make sure to discuss any such worries with your physician before the ECG test. Besides this, there are several factors that can also determine risks after an ECG test, including:
- Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
- Anatomical considerations (size of chest, location of heart, etc.)
- Moving during the test
- Certain medications
- Exercise or smoking before the test
- Electrolyte imbalance (lack of sufficient potassium, calcium or magnesium in the blood)
How to Prepare for an Electrocardiogram?
Follow these simple steps to prepare for an electrocardiogram (ECG) test:
- The doctor or technician will explain the test procedure and give you the opportunity to ask your queries.
- Usually, fasting is not required before an ECG.
- Make sure to discuss with your doctor every medication you may be taking, including any nutrition supplements.
- Make sure to let the doctor or technician know that you have a pacemaker.
- Depending on your medical condition, the technician or doctor may request you to make specific preparations.
How is an Electrocardiogram test performed?
An electrocardiogram is done either on an outpatient basis or as part of your hospital stay.
These are the common steps followed when doing an electrocardiogram (ECG) test:
- You will be required to remove all jewelry or object that may interfere with the test.
- You will be required to remove clothing from the waist up.
- You will require lying flat on a bed or table for the test. Do not move until the technician tells you to or else you run the risk of interfering with the test.
- In case you have a hairy chest, arms, and legs, the technician may shave or clip patches of the hair as needed to stick the electrodes properly to the chest.
- Electrodes are carefully attached to your legs, arms and chest.
- Then the lead wires are attached to the electrode patches.
- Once the wires are connected, the technician will enter patient information into the machine’s computer.
- Next, the ECG machine is started and it takes a fairly short time to trace your heart activity on the print paper.
- Once the readings are taken, the technician will switch off the ECG machine, disconnect the leads and remove the electrodes attached to your chest, arms and legs.
After an ECG, you will be able to resume normal everyday activities, if your doctor advises to. Usually, there is no special after-care required post ECG.
You should tell your doctor in case you develop any strange signs and symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fainting, etc.). In such cases, the doctor will instruct you to handle the symptoms accordingly.