If you’ve ever seen a cardiologist, changes are you had an electrocardiogram (EKG) test, which provides a baseline for your doctor to get a snapshot of your heart health. But it can also be used to diagnose irregularities or to help monitor at-risk patients.
A painless procedure, EKGs measure the electrical activity of each heartbeat using electrodes attached to your chest and back. With each beat, your heart sends a wave of electricity that tells your heart muscle to squeeze and pump blood. The EKG then measures and records the speed of that wave and its regularity.
Who Gets an EKG?
The short answer: almost everyone will get an EKG at the beginning of their cardiology appointment. However, some physical symptoms that may prompt your doctor to recommend an EKG include:
Shortness of breath
Fast or irregular heartbeats
Dizziness or fainting
EKGs also may be prescribed more regularly to monitor at-risk patients who are not currently experiencing symptoms, including those who have a family history of heart disease, smokers, pregnant women or patients who have diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension. EKGs can also assess the effectiveness of cardiac medications or pacemakers in patients already diagnosed with heart conditions.
What Can an EKG Test Tell Your Doctor?
When your cardiologist looks at the results of your EKG, they’ll mostly be looking for your heartbeat’s rate and frequency. Irregularities can point to potential conditions such as:
Arrhythmias, or when the heart beats too slowly, too quickly or irregularly
Coronary heart disease, where the heart’s blood supply is blocked or slowed
Heart attacks, when the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly stopped
Cardiomyopathy, a thickening or enlargement of the heart’s walls
What Happens if Your Doctor Notices an Irregularity?
Should your doctor notice an irregularity on your EKG, there are additional evaluations that provide a more detailed look at potential conditions. The most common follow-up tests include:
Stress Test: Also known as an exercise or treadmill test, this allows your doctor to see how well your heart handles increased exertion. It lets them know if the blood supply to your heart is being reduced.
Coronary angiography: This test looks for potential blockage in your arterial system using dye inserted through a catheter into your arm or groin. X-ray images monitor how the dye moves through your arteries, identifying any areas where blood flow may be constricted.
Echocardiogram: Using high frequency sound waves (or ultrasound), an echocardiogram takes pictures of your heart’s chambers, valves, walls and blood vessels. Your doctor can then see if all the valves are operating properly, if there are any clots or holes in the chambers and even look for tumors.
Additionally, there are now many wearable EKG systems that provide real-time telemonitoring based on cloud computing via your smartwatch, patches or portable fingertip sensors.Although not as detailed as the 12-lead systems found in your doctor’s office, these devices can deliver immediate feedback for patients who have intermittent episodes of irregular heartbeats such as atrial fibrillation or tachycardia, provide a daily history for your doctor and — best of all — offer you peace of mind.
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