Two modern medical technologies are frequently used for measuring the health of the heart: The electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG ) and echocardiogram (echo). Each procedure tells something different about the hearts function or structure. Both are noninvasive, painless ways for a doctor to evaluate the health of a patient’s heart.
What is Involved in Getting an EKG?
EKGs are done in a doctor’s office as a part of a regular office visit. The patient puts on a dressing gown and lies down on the exam table. The doctor or nurse applies a small amount of gel to areas on the chest, legs and arms. A patch connected to a wire is then set into the gel and a machine records the results.
The entire procedure takes a few minutes. EKGs are often performed as a part of a regular annual exam, helping the doctor measure changes over time. The results are printed on a strip of paper, and the doctor interprets and explains the results to the patient.
Sometimes an EKG is done while the patient is engaging in light activity, like walking on a treadmill. These kind of tests are called stress tests. The testing machine is the same whether the patient is lying down or performing exercise during the examination.
What Does an EKG Measure?
EKGs measure the electrical activity in the heart. When combined with Doppler technology, EKGs can also provide information on the flow of blood in the heart. Abnormalities in electrical activity and blood flow can be signs of heart disease and can be a sign of heart failure.
Sometimes, however, abnormalities in an EKG can be harmless. For this reason, follow-up tests are used when abnormalities are found.
The Difference Between an Electrocardiogram and an Echocardiogram?
An echocardiogram is a machine that takes an ultrasound image of the heart, rather than measuring its electrical activity. During an echocardiogram, a gel is applied to the chest over the heart area. A large pad called a transducer is then placed on the gel by the doctor or technician. Like with ultrasound used during pregnancy, the echocardiogram produces an image on a screen which the doctor reads. An echocardiogram is also often done in a doctor’s office and take about 30 minutes.
An echocardiogram allows doctors to see the size of the heart’s chambers and watch the functioning of heart valves. The thickness of the walls of the heart can also be measured. All of this information allows a doctor to detect heart disease and to see problems that might be getting started. This information then guides patients toward lifestyle changes or treatment options that are best for them.
Who Needs to Get an EKG?
While anyone could get a recommendation for an EKG, most often, they are used on people over 40. A history of high blood pressure or heart disease increases the chances that an EKG will be recommended. Many doctors also use EKGs as a regular part of an annual exam, especially for patients at risk for heart disease.
How to Prepare for an EKG?
The best way of preparing for one of these procedures is to relax. Being relaxed is actually important for getting accurate readings. Interestingly, it is also important to be warm because shivering or other movement can also effect the results1.
It can also help to remember that having an EKG is an excellent way of preventing heart failure. These are simple, fast, and painless procedures that support good health.
Citations (view all)
- 1. Medline Plus, "Electrocardiogram" Accessed January 17, 2015. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003868.htm.