ECG - Electrocardiogram

Tracing of the electrical activity of the heart which shows heart rate and rhythm

ECG (electrocardiogram) is a tracing of the electrical activity of the heart. Several sticky patches called electrodes are attached to the skin of the chest, arms, and legs and leads (wires) connect the electrodes to an ECG machine. Every cardiac cycle (heartbeat) produces tiny electrical signals. The ECG machine amplifies and records these signals on paper for a period of time, allowing detailed analysis of any abnormalities. The procedure takes about 5-10 minutes and is noninvasive and painless. The ECG machine does not generate any external electrical current and only passively records electrical potentials produced by cardiac activity.

Standard electrocardiogram uses 12 leads:

6 limb leads: 3 unipolar, aVR connected to right arm, aVL to left arm, aVF to left foot; and 3 bipolar, I from left arm to right arm, II from left leg to righ arm, III from left leg to left arm

6 unipolar precordial chest leads: V1 – 4th intercostal space right, V2 – 4th intercostal left, V3 – between V2&V4, V4 – midclavicular (mid collar bone), V5 – 5th intercostal space in anterior axillary line, and V6 – 5th intercostal in midaxillary line

A typical electrocardiogram of one cardiac cycle consists of a P wave, a QRS complex, a T wave, and sometimes a U wave. The baseline voltage of the ECG is known as the isoelectric line.


An ECG shows heart rate (how fast the heart is beating), it shows whether heart rhythm is steady or irregular and it can locate the part of the heart muscle which is responsible for the problems. ECG is a basic part of cardiology consultation and is used for assessment of patients with chest pain, palpitations, murmurs, dizziness and blackouts, for monitoring during anaesthesia and in critically ill patients.

ECG can detect:

enlargement of heart chambers (atrial and ventricular hypertrophy) caused e.g. by high blood pressure, valvular problems or chronic lung disease

extra beats (premature contractions, atrial/supraventricular and ventricular ectopics) corresponding sometimes to palpitations

sustained arrhythmias (heart rhythm abnormalities), such as atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter

conduction defects (problems with conduction of electric signals within the heart) called left anterior and posterior hemiblock (LAH and LPH), right and left bundle branch block (RBBB, LBBB), 1st, 2nd (Wenckebach, Mobitz) and 3rd degree AV (atrioventricular) block

presence and effect of pacemaker (atrial, ventricular and atrioventricular pacing)

lack of oxygen supply to the heart muscle (myocardial ischaemia) corresponding to anginal chest pain

presence, location and type of the heart attack (myocardial infarction)

effect of drugs or electrolyte disturbances in the blood (e.g. effect of digoxin or hypo- and hyperkalaemia – lack and excess of potassium)

susceptibility to arrhythmias (e.g. LQTS – long QT interval, delta wave indicating presence of accessory pathway in WPW syndrome, Brugada syndrome etc.)

Risks and complications

ECG is noninvasive procedure and there are no known risks with this investigation. Should you have any worries about the procedure Dr Kirk will be only too pleased to discuss them with you.

Before the procedure

You will be taken into the room where the test is to be performed. The test will be explained and you will be asked to remove any necessary articles of clothing above the waist. Since access to your ankles is needed, it is helpful if ladies could avoid wearing tights. Some electrode pads will be stuck onto your chest and limbs to which wires going to the ECG recorder will be attached. It is helpful for this test if you can remove any jewellery from your neck before you arrive.

During the procedure

You will be lying on a couch with attached leads and will be asked to relax completely and be ‘floppy’ for 10-20 seconds to minimize any electrical activity coming from outside your heart. Artifacts can be caused by excessive muscle tension, shaking (tremor), talking or movements. You will not feel anything during the test.

After the procedure

The ECG can be printed if you require copies on the day. The tracing will be reported by Dr Kirk and discussed with you during the consultation.