When your doctor says you need medical testing, you might immediately jump to a worst-case scenario, complete with images of fatal diseases and premature death running through your head. And even if you tend to remain calm at the doctor's, the fact that the test is called an electrocardiogram may sound especially frightening. It's hard, after all, to remain calm when your doctor reveals he'll be attaching 12 to 15 electrodes to your body, particularly if you're a fan of Frankenstein movies.
An electrocardiogram, which is abbreviated as either EKG or ECG, is a lot less intimidating than it sounds. To put it simply, an EKG is a test of your heartbeat. Every time your heart beats, an electric wave travels through the heart, which causes it to pump blood. By conducting an EKG, doctors can use information about your heart's electrical activity to determine the condition of your heart.
Still wary? Well, we've got five cool things to keep in mind about EKGs.
They're Portable, if Necessary
Have you ever taken your car to the shop, only to have it fail to make the ominous noise it's been making all week? Your mechanic tells you there's nothing wrong, even though you've been listening to weird creaks and sputters. Your heart can act in the same unpredictable way. If you're worried about an irregular heartbeat, it may not show up as irregular on the day that you go to the doctor for an EKG. For that reason, there are several portable versions of the monitor, which can give doctors many hours' worth of information. A Holter monitor can be slipped into a pocket or worn around the neck or waist; it provides continual monitoring for 24 to 48 hours. If you're wearing an event monitor, sometimes called an ambulatory EKG, you control when it takes information. If you always get short of breath when you're trying to fall asleep, you could push a button when you start experiencing symptoms, and doctors will get a snapshot of how your heart is acting when you can't breathe.
The reasons for needing an EKG might be pretty scary, but hopefully these five cool things have shown you that the test and the things it reveals are extremely worthwhile.
Knowledge is Power
By measuring the intervals between the heart's electrical impulses, a doctor can determine if your heartbeat is regular or irregular, and by measuring the strength of each electrical impulse, the doctor can determine if your heart is working too hard or not hard enough. These two metrics can indicate several types of heart damage, including:
- Congenital heart defects
- Heart valve disease
- Pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart)
- Hypertrophy of the heart chamber walls or blood vessels
- Heart failure
That's a daunting list, but remember, diagnosis is the first step to treatment. The fix may be as simple as watchful waiting. If a case of pericarditis or arrhythmia is severe, a doctor may recommend medication, while he or she may elect to operate on a congenital heart defect. Knowing that you're at risk for heart failure could inspire you to eat better, exercise more and address the risk factors you can control. An EKG is the best way to figure out what your case calls for.
You Can Get to the Bottom of Scary Symptoms
We've talked a little bit about how an EKG is performed, but why might a doctor order one? It's possible your doctor may ask for an EKG when you're completely fine in order to have baseline data to use later on. You may need an EKG to be cleared for some types of surgery. If you've begun taking new medications or had a pacemaker implanted, the doctor may want to see how those things are affecting your heart.
Many times, though, an EKG is ordered when a patient complains of chest pain or other symptoms of heart disease, including shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness or palpitations. Oftentimes, people will ignore such symptoms because they're scared of what the doctor will say. Rather than living with the fact that your heart pounds, races or flutters, it's best to submit to the EKG and find out what's really going on.
They're Easy and Painless
It may sound risky to have electricity and your heart in such close proximity, but it's not. That's how your heart works, and an EKG machine doesn't send any electricity through your body, it merely measures the electricity already in your heart. The test isn't painful, either. The only risk of physical hurt may be when they remove the stickers holding the electrodes to your chest. There's little prep work involved -- if you're particularly hairy in places where the doctor needs to attach electrodes, you might be shaved. And you may need to adjust when you take certain medications, which is information your doctor can provide. Otherwise, all you'll need to do is show up and lie still on an examining table (one exception: If a doctor calls for a stress EKG, you may need to perform a little exercise). The test should be over in five to 10 minutes, and you'll likely have results almost instantaneously.
An EKG is Like a Record Contract for Your Heart
If you love "American Idol" but can't sing a note to save your life, an EKG provides a way to get noticed for your sense of rhythm. Or, more correctly, your heart's sense of rhythm. As we mentioned on the last page, your heart is like an electric instrument, and those electric impulses determine your heart's rhythm. So, you could think of your heartbeat as a kind of performance. By placing electrodes on your chest and hooking you up to the machine, a doctor can record that electrical performance.
Some people don't realize that they can't sing until they hear a recording of themselves, and this may be true for your heart. By recording your heart's electrical activity, doctors will be able to determine if the rhythm of your heart is irregular or inadequate. If you're nowhere near entering a real recording studio, the printout from an EKG may be the closest thing to your own album. We'll talk more about what can show up on this recording later on in the article.
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