What is an EKG?

HealthcareFebruary 13, 2014

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, national job growth within the medical technology field is estimated at 13 percent between 2010 and 2020. If you plan to become an EKG technician, a specialized cardiovascular technologist, your primary tool will be the electrocardiogram (EKG). EKG tests are, more often than not, conducted primarily in a hospital setting.

What is an EKG?

An EKG is a test that gathers information about the electrical activity of the heart. The EKG technician places electrodes on certain areas of the body. Over time, the machine receives information and converts it into a series of waves printed onto an "EKG strip." By analyzing the strip, a physician can decide whether a heart is having problems or not. The test might provide the doctor with enough information to make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment. If any problems are suspected, the doctor is more likely to order additional testing.

The test itself is simple. The patient calmly lies on a table, stretcher or bed and has metal electrodes placed on his or her chest, legs and arms. Sometimes, a small amount of body hair has to be shaved away. Unless they are of the disposable type, an alcohol pad or EKG paste is placed between it and the skin to enhance an electrode's signal.

An EKG test is safe, and there are no adverse effects whatsoever. Contrary to how it appears, the machine does not transmit electricity through the body. It simply detects and records natural electrical impulses occurring in the body. Most EKG tests last about ten minutes. Other times, they measure activity over a length of time. Referred to as telemetry, this kind of testing is performed on hospitalized patients, especially on cardiac floors. Using a Holter monitor, EKG data is recorded over a 24-hour time period (sometimes longer), while patients are at home conducting their normal daily activities.

In addition to attaching and monitoring Holter devices, EKG technicians with advanced training conduct treadmill stress tests. After obtaining some baseline measurements, the technician runs the test in stages. Vigilant for any problems, the heart's workload is increased, and its electrical activity is recorded.

What an EKG Test Reveals

Although advances have been made, fundamental EKG technology has been around for decades. This includes what an EKG can and cannot do. For example, an EKG can:

  • Help identify what is causing heart-related symptoms, from heart palpitations to shortness of breath
  • Guide conclusions on the efficacy of certain cardiac medications or whether other medicines are adversely affecting the heart
  • Identify heart chamber walls that have hypertrophied, or become too thick
  • Check the effectiveness of heart implant devices, especially pacemakers
  • Help understand what is causing a patient's chest pains.

One way to answer the question "what is an EKG?" is understanding what it does not do. An EKG cannot predict a heart attack; however, serial EKG testing, in which measurements are spaced out over time, can determine the health of a heart and whether there is the likelihood of a heart attack.

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