An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a medical test that detects cardiac (heart) abnormalities by measuring the electrical activity generated by the heart as it contracts. The machine that records the patient’s ECG is called an electrocardiograph.
The electrocardiograph records the electrical activity of the heart muscle and displays this data as a trace on a screen or on paper. This data is then interpreted by a medical practitioner.
ECGs from healthy hearts have a characteristic shape. Any irregularity in the heart rhythm or damage to the heart muscle can change the electrical activity of the heart so that the shape of the ECG is changed.
The three major types of ECG are:
- resting ECG – you lie down for this type of ECG. No movement is allowed during the test, as electrical impulses generated by other muscles may interfere with those generated by your heart. This type of ECG usually takes 5 to 10 minutes
- ambulatory ECG – if you have an ambulatory or Holter ECG you wear a portable recording device for at least 24 hours. You are free to move around normally while the monitor is attached. This type of ECG is used for people whose symptoms are intermittent (stop-start) and may not show up on a resting ECG, and for people recovering from heart attack to ensure that their heart is functioning properly. You record your symptoms in a diary, and note when they occur so that your own experience can be compared with the ECG
- exercise stress test (EST) – this test is used to record your ECG while you ride on an exercise bike or walk on a treadmill. This type of ECG takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete.
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