Getting an EKG is a great way to determine your heart health status, detect heart problems, measure the effectiveness of treatments for heart disease, or check on heart functions before surgery or medical procedures. Short for "electrocardiogram," EKGs provide helpful information in a non-invasive, painless, 10-minute test.
How does an EKG work?
EKGs measure the electrical impulse of your heartbeat. These impulses or "waves" cause your heart muscle to squeeze and release, pumping blood throughout your body. Your EKG results will help your provider determine whether your heartbeat is normal and how well the different chambers of your heart are functioning. While not advised for low-risk individuals, EKGs may be ordered to screen those with a family history of heart disease.
Why get an EKG?
Fluttering sensations in your chest or a racing heartbeat are sometimes referred to as heart palpitations. These are changes in your heart's regular beating pattern and can happen if you drink too much caffeine, are currently fighting off a virus, take certain medications, feel anxious or exercise strenuously. Sometimes they occur without a known cause. The majority of heart palpitations are normal and need no assessment. Others, however, could indicate trouble.
An irregular heartbeat combined with chest pain, faintness, dizziness or shortness of breath should always trigger an immediate call to a healthcare provider. Some of the symptoms of arrhythmias are similar to other conditions. Chest pain, fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath can indicate a heart attack or blocked arteries.
Your healthcare professional will determine your immediate medical needs and probably use an EKG to evaluate the cause of your symptoms.
If you’ve experience any of the following symptoms, your provider may order an EKG:
- An irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
- Weakness and/or a decline in physical ability
- Shortness of breath
EKGs can detect heart problems
EKGs can detect several diseases, enabling providers to determine treatment. Some conditions are treated with medication, surgical procedures and lifestyle changes.
Heart arrhythmias are divided into two basic classes: fast heartbeat and slow heartbeat. Tachycardia is characterized by a rapid heartbeat (more than 100 beats per minute), while arrhythmias characterized by a slow heartbeat (less than 60 beats per minute) are called bradycardia.
Tachycardia arrhythmias include atrial fibrillation (A-fib), an erratic, fast heartbeat. A-fib is the most common form of arrhythmia. It is usually not life-threatening, but if left untreated, it could lead to stroke.
On the other hand, ventricular fibrillation (V-fib) refers to arrhythmias in the lower chamber of the heart. It's often associated with people who have an underlying heart condition, and when it occurs, it could be fatal without immediate medical attention.
Slow heartbeat arrhythmias (bradycardia) can be caused by sick sinus syndrome. Most common in older adults, bradycardia can be caused by a damaged or scarred sinus node, a part of the heart responsible for regulating the heartbeat. Another type of bradycardia is called a conduction block when the heart's electrical pathways trigger the heartbeat to slow down.
Your provider may order an EKG if they suspect blocked arteries, the result of plaques from a buildup of cholesterol, fat and other particles. These plaques can continue to grow on your arterial walls, obstructing blood flow that carries nutrients from the heart to other parts of the body. Left untreated, blocked arteries can cause strokes along with other illnesses.
EKGs can detect past heart attacks, structural issues and even help to evaluate how well a treatment or procedure is working.
An EKG may be used to detect:
- Abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia
- Blocked or narrowed arteries in your heart
- Structural issues with your heart's chambers
- A heart attack in the past
- How well heart treatments, such as a pacemaker, are working
What to expect when you get an EKG
EKGs are painless and usually take only about 10 minutes. A technician will place about a dozen sensors on your chest and limbs with gel or tape. They may have to shave small areas of your skin to get the sensors to stick.
You'll be asked to lie still and breathe normally while the sensors and a computer record the electrical impulses (waves) of your heartbeat. If your provider ordered a "stress test," instead of lying on a table, you would be asked to walk or jog on a treadmill to measure heart waves during physical activity.
Understanding the results of an EKG test
Depending on the reason for your EKG, your provider will check the results for heart rate, structural abnormalities, blood/oxygen flow or risk of a heart attack. If the test comes back with irregularities, your provider may recommend additional tests to determine whether treatment is needed.
If you have symptoms that come and go, your provider may recommend one of two "remote" EKG tests. A continuous EKG test is performed through a Holter monitor, a small wearable device that provides EKG recordings for 24-48 hours. A second type performs "event-based" EKG reading. Event-based EKG devices are wearable monitors that automatically record heart activity when they detect an abnormality or require you to push a button when you experience a symptom.
If you are suffering from symptoms of heart disease, consider getting checked by a medical professional at your local CareNow®. We have more than 150 locations throughout the country, with many in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Las Vegas, Denver, Nashville and Kansas City.
Be sure to take advantage of our Web Check-In® feature to avoid the waiting room!
Disclaimer: Patients' health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.