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Related to electrocardiography: echocardiography, electroencephalography, angiography




Electrocardiography is a commonly used, noninvasive procedure for recording electrical changes in the heart. The record, which is called an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), shows the series of waves that relate to the electrical impulses which occur during each beat of the heart. The results are printed on paper or displayed on a monitor. The waves in a normal record are named P, Q, R, S, and T and follow in alphabetical order. The number of waves may vary, and other waves may be present.


Electrocardiography is a starting point for detecting many cardiac problems. It is used routinely in physical examinations and for monitoring the patient's condition during and after surgery, as well as during intensive care. It is the basic measurement used for tests such as exercise tolerance. It is used to evaluate causes of symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations.


No special precautions are required.


The patient disrobes from the waist up, and electrodes (tiny wires in adhesive pads) are applied to specific sites on the arms, legs, and chest. When attached, the electrodes are called leads; three to 12 leads may be employed.
Muscle movement may interfere with the recording, which lasts for several beats of the heart. In cases where rhythm disturbances are suspected to be infrequent, the patient may wear a small Holter monitor in order to record continuously over a 24-hour period; this is known as ambulatory monitoring.


The skin is cleaned to obtain good electrical contact at the electrode positions.


To avoid skin irritation from the salty gel used to obtain good electrical contact, the skin should be thoroughly cleaned after removal of the electrodes.


No complications from this procedure have been observed.

Normal results

When the heart is operating normally, each part contracts in a specific order. Contraction of the muscle is triggered by an electrical impulse. These electrical impulses travel through specialized cells that form a conduction system. Following this pathway ensures that contractions will occur in a coordinated manner.
When the presence of all waves is observed in the electrocardiogram and these waves follow the order defined alphabetically, the heart is said to show a normal sinus rhythm, and impulses may be assumed to be following the regular conduction pathway.
The heart is described as showing arrhythmia or dysrhythmia when time intervals between waves, the order, or the number of waves do not fit this pattern. Other features that may be altered include the direction of wave deflection and wave widths.
In the normal heart, electrical impulses—at a rate of 60-100 times per minute—originate in the sinus node. The sinus node is located in the first chamber, known as the right atrium, where blood re-enters the heart. After traveling down to the junction between the upper and lower chambers, the signal stimulates the atrioventricular node. From here, after a delay, it passes by specialized routes through the lower chambers or ventricles. In many disease states, the passage of the electrical impulse can be interrupted in a variety of ways, causing the heart to perform less efficiently.

Abnormal results

Special training is required for interpretation of the electrocardiogram. To summarize the features used in interpretations in the simplest manner, the P wave of the electrocardiogram is associated with the contraction of the atria. The QRS series of waves, or QRS complex, is associated with ventricular contraction, with the T wave coming after the contraction. Finally, the P-Q or P-R interval gives a value for the time taken for the electrical impulse to travel from the atria to the ventricle (normally less than 0.2 sec).
The cause of dysrhythmia is ectopic beats. Ectopic beats are premature heart beats that arise from a site other than the sinus node-commonly from the atria, atrioventricular node, or the ventricle. When these dysrhythmias are only occasional, they may produce no symptoms, or a feeling of the heart turning over or "flip-flopping" may be experienced. These occasional dysrhythmias are common in healthy people, but they also can be an indication of heart disease.
The varied sources of dysrhythmias provide a wide range of alterations in the form of the electrocardiogram. Ectopic beats that start in the ventricle display an abnormal QRS complex. This can indicate disease associated with insufficient blood supply to the muscle (myocardial ischemia). Multiple ectopic sites lead to rapid and uncoordinated contractions of the atria or ventricles. This condition is known as fibrillation. In atrial fibrillation, P waves are absent, and the QRS complex appears at erratic intervals, or "irregularly irregular."
When the atrial impulse fails to reach the ventricle, a condition known as heart block results. If this is partial, the P-R interval (the time for the impulse to reach the ventricle) is prolonged. If complete, the ventricles beat independently of the atria at about 40 beats per minute, and the QRS complex is mostly dissociated from the P wave.



American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. http://www.americanheart.org.

Key terms

Ambulatory monitoring — ECG recording over a prolonged period during which the patient can move around.
Arrhythmia or dysrhythmia — Abnormal rhythm in hearts that contract in an irregular way.
ECG or EKG — A record of the waves that relates to the electrical impulses produced at each beat of the heart.
Electrodes — Tiny wires in adhesive pads that are applied to the body for ECG measurement.
Fibrillation — Rapid, uncoordinated contractions of the upper or the lower chambers of the heart.
Lead — Name given the electrode when it is attached to the skin.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the graphic recording from the body surface of the electric potential of currents generated by the heart, as a means of studying the action of the heart muscle. adj., adj electrocardiograph´ic. With the modern electrocardiograph, the current that accompanies the action of the heart is amplified 3000 times or more, and it moves a small, sensitively balanced lever in contact with moving paper. The pattern of heart waves that is traced on the paper indicates the heart's rhythm and other actions.ƒ

The normal electrocardiogram is composed of a P wave, Q, R, and S waves known as the qrs complex, or QRS wave, and a T wave. The P wave occurs at the beginning of each contraction of the atria. The QRS wave occurs at the beginning of each contraction of the ventricles. The T wave seen in a normal electrocardiogram occurs as the ventricles recover electrically and prepare for the next contraction. There is a refractory period between these waves during which the muscle is inexcitable; this period is usually about 0.30 second.

The electric impulses in the heart muscle are picked up and conducted to the electrocardiograph by electrodes or leads connected to the body by small metal plates or other methods. The metal plates are moistened with a conductive paste and attached to the arms, legs, and chest (cardiac area) of the patient.

Electrocardiography is a valuable diagnostic tool, used in some routine physical examinations and when a heart disorder occurs or is suspected. It helps diagnose the damage that may have been inflicted on the heart muscle by a coronary occlusion, the progress of rheumatic fever, the presence of abnormal rhythms, or the effect of digitalis or other drugs. An electrocardiogram cannot always detect impending heart disease or all cardiovascular disorders. The readings are interpreted together with the results of other diagnostic tests.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. A method of recording electrical currents traversing the heart muscle.
2. The study and interpretation of electrocardiograms.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


1. A method of recording the electrical activity of the heart: impulse formation, conduction, depolarization, and repolarization of atria and ventricles.
2. The study and interpretation of electrocardiograms.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Recording of the rapidly varying electric currents which can be detected as varying voltage differences between different points on the surface of the body, as a result of heart muscle contraction. The electrocardiograph (ECG) tracings show patterns highly indicative of a wide variety of heart disorders. Modern ECG machines usually carry out an automatic analysis of the waveform and suggest a diagnosis.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


1. A method of recording the electrical activity of the heart: impulse formation, conduction, depolarization, and repolarization of atria and ventricles.
2. The study and interpretation of electrocardiograms.
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012
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