If your heart has been beating too fast, or you've been having chest pain, both you and your doctor will want to find out what's causing the problem so you can get it treated. One way to diagnose heart problems is with a test of the heart's electrical activity, called an electrocardiogram or ECG, or EKG for short.
Your heart is controlled by an electrical system, much like the electricity that powers the lights and appliances in your home. Electrical signals make your heart contract so that it can pump blood out to your body. Heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms, and other heart problems can affect those signals. Using an ECG, your doctor can identify problems in your heart's electrical system and diagnose heart disease.
So, how is an ECG done?
First you'll lie down on a table. You'll have to lie very still while the test is done. Small patches, called electrodes, will be attached to several places on your arms, legs, and chest. The patches won't hurt, but some of the hair in those areas may be shaved so the patches will stick to your skin. The patches are then attached to a machine. You'll notice that when the machine is turned on, it produces wavy lines on a piece of paper. Those lines represent the electrical signals coming from your heart. If the test is normal, it should show that your heart is beating at an even rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute.
Many different heart conditions can show up on an ECG, including a fast, slow, or abnormal heart rhythm, a heart defect, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, or an enlarged heart. An abnormal ECG may also be a sign that you've had a heart attack in the past, or that you're at risk for one in the near future.
If you're healthy and you don't have any family or personal history of heart disease, you don't need to have an ECG on a regular basis. But if you are having heart problems, your doctor may recommend getting this test. An ECG is pretty accurate at diagnosing many types of heart disease, although it doesn't always pick up every heart problem. You may have a perfectly normal ECG, yet still have a heart condition. If your test is normal but your doctor suspects that you have a heart problem, he may recommend that you have another ECG, or a different type of test to find out for sure.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.