ECG tests: Your questions answered
Your heart produces tiny electrical impulses, which spread through the muscle to make it contract. This heartbeat can reveal a lot about your coronary health, and can be measured by an electrocardiogram (ECG).
An ECG is the process of recording the electrical activity of the heart. ECG machines can be very important and useful tools for diagnosing and managing long term heart conditions.
Here are answers to all of your questions about ECGs.
How does an ECG work?
An ECG uses electrodes placed on your chest to record the electrical pulses that trigger your heartbeat. This information is transmitted to a machine called an electrocardiograph, which displays your heartbeat as a wavy line with a series of spikes.
Each electrode is carefully placed in an area that measures the specific electrical pulses coming from different directions of the heart. There is a normal pattern for each electrode, so abnormal patterns are clear and easily detectable.
Your doctor will analyse the pattern created by the electrical signals and identify any problems in your heart activity.
When do you need an ECG?
ECGs are effective tools for finding out whether there are any abnormalities in the heart or blood vessels. The test can be used to:
- Detect abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). This can include instances where the heart beats too slowly, too fast or in an irregular patter.
- Find out if there are structural problems in the heart, such as enlargement of one of the chambers or thickening of the heart muscle.
- Determine if there are high levels of cholesterol impacting your heart's blood supply, or if you have coronary heart disease.
- Detect if you have poor blood flow to the heart.
- Reveal more about past heart attacks and any damage they may have caused to the organ.
ECGs are effective tools for finding out whether there are any abnormalities in the heart.
The test can be in response to symptoms such as chest pains, shortness of breath or heart palpitations, or it may be done as part of a set of routine tests. An ECG test may be requested by any doctor who has concerns regarding your heart health, including your regular GP. However, the test itself is typically carried out by a specialist.
You may be required to get a series of ECGs over time to monitor a heart condition or to keep track of factors such as medication which could affect your heart.
What are the different types of ECG tests?
While standard ECG tests are valuable and impart useful information, they do have certain limitations. Not all heart conditions can be detected by a routine ECG, which is why there are more specialised version of the test available. The three types of ECG are:
- Resting ECG. The standard ECG test is carried out while you are in a bed or a chair, in order to measure your resting heart rate.
- Exercise ECG. The test is carried out while you are on a treadmill or exercise bike, so your doctor can assess your heart rate when it is slightly elevated – because of this, it's also sometimes known as a stress ECG. This test is particularly useful for assessing angina, or how badly the coronary arteries have narrowed.
- Holter monitor. This is a small device that measures your heartbeat over a period of 24 hours or more. Standard ECG tests aren't always long enough to identify potential problems, so you may need to wear a holter monitor on your body to find out more about any dizziness, chest pains or irregular heartbeat you may be experiencing. It's also a more suitable option when symptoms appear in random episodes.
The type of ECG your doctor requests will depend on your symptoms and the suspected heart problem.
What happens during an ECG test?
ECGs are non-invasive, so you don't need to do anything to prepare beforehand.
You usually need to remove some of your clothing, so the electrodes can be attached to your arms, chest and sometimes legs. For a resting ECG, your doctor will simply ask you to lie on a bed while electrodes are attached to your chest, arms and legs. You'll continue to breathe normally while the electrodes record data.
The whole test is safe, painless and only takes a few minutes.
What happens after an ECG test?
If the results were normal, you may not need any further testing. Your doctor will discuss any irregularities with you and work out a suitable treatment plan to manage your symptoms.
An ECG can be included as part of our connected health solution at Tunstall. Our Integrated Care Platform (ICP) enables people with chronic conditions to monitor their vital signs independently via a myclinic connected health hub or on their own device with mymobile. Read more about the healthcare solutions we offer or give us a call at 1800 603 377.