An EKG test is an easy way to get information to diagnose a problem with your heart. It doesn’t take long and doesn’t cause pain, but an electrocardiogram test can tell your healthcare provider if you’ve had a heart attack, heart failure or heart damage. It can also tell them if your heart rhythm isn’t normal or how well your pacemaker is working.
An electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG) uses temporary electrodes on your chest and limbs to monitor, track and document your heart’s electrical activity (which controls your heartbeats) for diagnostic purposes. A computer translates the information into a wave pattern your healthcare provider can interpret. This is a quick, noninvasive test that doesn’t hurt. You can get an EKG while lying down and resting or while you’re exercising as part of a stress test.
Because a typical EKG tracks your heart’s electrical activity for a very short time, it probably won’t pick up irregularities that only happen once in a while. It’s like when your internet is acting up but seems fine when someone comes to repair it. To capture these erratic issues, your provider can give you:
Your own internal pacemaker, your sinoatrial node, starts your heartbeat with an electrical signal. An EKG reads that signal and tracks its impact on your heart as it contracts and relaxes with each heartbeat.
Your healthcare provider will look at how much electrical activity there is, how strong it is and how much time passes between the different waves or peaks that represent the electrical impulses.
Both terms mean the same thing: an electrocardiogram. EKG comes from the German word, which uses “k” instead of “c” in both parts of the word. However, it’s different from an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound that creates images of your beating heart.
Your healthcare provider uses an EKG to:
They can also check on how your heart is doing since you:
Your provider may give you an EKG test because you have:
A healthcare provider who’s a heart expert (cardiologist) usually orders or performs an EKG. However, other providers can give you this test, especially if you’re in an ambulance or an emergency room instead of at a scheduled appointment. You can get an EKG in your provider’s office, at a hospital or at an outpatient facility.
Electrodes or sensors your provider puts on your chest, legs and arms send information through wires to a computer that uses the data to make a wave chart. This shows the electrical activity that’s happening in your heart.
Before an EKG, you can eat and drink like you normally would. However, you’ll want to keep the following in mind before you get dressed on the day of your EKG test:
A healthcare provider will attach 12 electrodes with adhesive pads to the skin on your chest, arms and legs. To allow a better connection, your provider may shave hair that’s in the way. It takes about 10 minutes to attach the electrodes and complete the test, but the actual recording takes only a few seconds.
For a resting EKG, you‘ll lie flat and relax while the computer creates a picture, on graph paper, of the electrical impulses traveling through your heart. If you’re doing a stress test, you’ll be walking on a treadmill during the test.
The electrodes will stay on your skin until the EKG test is done. You won’t feel anything different when the electrodes are communicating with the computer.
Your healthcare provider will remove all of the sticky electrode patches and you can return to your normal activities.
An EKG is a low-risk test. It doesn’t use radiation or put electricity into your skin. You might have some skin irritation after your healthcare provider removes the sticky patches that were attached to the sensors.
Your EKG results may show that you have:
If your healthcare provider is able to review your EKG test results right away, they may speak to you soon afterward. This is especially true in an emergency situation when you may need immediate treatment. However, if your electrocardiogram test is more routine or part of a group of tests before noncardiac surgery, you may not hear from your provider for a few days.
Your provider will keep your EKG records on file to compare with future ones.
Contact your healthcare provider if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
An EKG is a very quick and pain-free test your healthcare provider can do to check your heart rhythm and evaluate your heart. The information from your EKG will help your provider decide what treatment would be best for you. Be sure to keep your follow-up appointments with your provider and keep taking the medicines they prescribed for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/13/2022.
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