What is an EKG Heart Test and what can it measure?

An electrocardiogram, or an EKG heart test, is a test that analyzes the electrical activity of your heart. The test, which takes approximately three minutes to perform, involves a technician attaching twelve leads to your chest and then getting a 12-line printout that reflects your heart’s activity during a 10-second window. 

Now that we’ve answered what is an EKG test, there are a few types. One is called a Holter monitor, which is a portable and wearable device that collects continuous heart data for at least 24 hours. 

A heart monitoring device is similar, but it only records data when there is abnormal heart activity. For instance, if you’re experiencing an irregular heartbeat or other cardiac symptoms. Both types of monitors record your heart’s electrical activity and determine whether there are irregularities present.

So, what exactly can an EKG tell you about your heart’s health? Let’s dive into when an EKG may be ordered and how it can help. 

Who needs to get an ekg heart test?

An EKG is an important device used to collect data about the condition of the heart. It’s often ordered when a doctor is concerned about symptoms of heart problems, such as chest pain, irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath, fatigue or dizziness. 

It can also be used if there’s a suspicion of coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure. Healthcare providers may be able to help prevent a heart attack with EKG as this gives them vital information. 

What does an ekg test reveal?

What does an EKG measure? Simply put, an EKG test measures and records electrical signals in the heart. This is a simple test that can tell you many important things about how your heart is functioning, such as heart rate and whether the heart muscle is performing at healthy, normal levels. 

An EKG test can help confirm suspected diagnoses and help your doctor recommend the best plan forward to support your heart health. A healthy EKG can confirm that your heart is working as it’s supposed to. Below are some of the most important data an EKG can tell you about what’s going on with your heart. 

Abnormal heart beat

An EKG can reveal an arrhythmia (an abnormal heart rhythm).

A healthy heart should be pumping in a steady rhythm. However, when there is dysfunction in the electric signals sent from one part of your heart to another, the heart beats abnormally, which produces an arrhythmia. 

Having an arrhythmia may feel like a fluttering or racing heart, and an EKG can help confirm whether it’s something to be concerned about. Since an EKG measures your heart's electrical activity, it quickly picks up these arrhythmias.

Blood & oxygen levels

An EKG can reveal if your heart is getting enough oxygen.

Your heart is a hard-working muscle that requires plenty of oxygen to stay strong and function properly. However, due to blockages or constrictions in the coronary blood vessels, the heart can experience ischemia, a dangerous state in which the cardiac tissue is under-perfused.  

If your heart experiences prolonged ischemia, the muscle can actually start to die, leading to heart failure and even death. An EKG is a useful tool that helps medical providers evaluate how much oxygen your heart is getting and intervene immediately if your heart is ischemic to prevent catastrophic complications.

Enlarged heart & other defects

An EKG can reveal if your heart is enlarged.

A healthy heart is about the size of your fist, located just left of center in your chest.  However, there are some medical conditions that can cause cardiomegaly (an abnormally enlarged heart.)  

Causes include untreated high blood pressure, viral infections of the cardiac muscle, advanced age and heart failure. Often cardiomegaly shows up on an EKG as abnormally large waveforms, which can alert your medical provider to a serious underlying condition.

Furthermore, an EKG can show a bulge in the heart’s walls, known as an aneurysm. Most aneurysms occur in the aorta, the main artery running from the heart. If it grows too large, it can burst or tear the artery wall, which can be life-threatening. 

Past heart attacks

An EKG can tell you if you’ve had a heart attack in the past.

While heart attacks often cause significant symptoms that prompt patients to seek immediate medical attention, in 45% of cases, symptoms are so mild that patients don’t realize there’s anything wrong with their hearts.  

These are referred to as “silent” heart attacks,  which often show up weeks or months later as characteristic abnormalities on an EKG that alert your medical provider that you have a potentially dangerous blockage in your coronary arteries that has led to ischemia in the past and will likely lead to an even worse event in the future if left untreated.

Heart Conditions to Be Aware Of

Your heart health is critical for your quality of life and longevity. It’s important to be aware of what your heart can tell you and understand potential symptoms of heart conditions. While some may be reversible with lifestyle changes, others can become life-threatening without medical intervention. 

Some of the most common heart-related health conditions are listed below: 

  • Cardiomyopathy: This is a chronic disorder of the heart muscle. It makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. The heart itself can become enlarged, rigid or thick. Some forms of cardiomyopathy, such as “broken heart syndrome”, can be triggered by extreme stress.
  • Congenital heart disease: This refers to heart defects that have been present since birth and are important to monitor throughout life. 
  • Coronary heart disease: The leading cause of death in the United States, this is a type of heart disease in which the arteries cannot transport enough oxygenated blood to the heart. 
  • High cholesterol: Having higher than normal levels of fats circulating in the bloodstream, like cholesterol and triglycerides, can increase the risk for arterial blockages, strokes and heart attacks. 
  • Hypertension: Uncontrolled high blood pressure that can eventually cause damage to blood vessels, arteries and even organs.
  • Valvular heart disease: Refers to any heart disease process that involves one or more of the four heart valves.

The risk of developing many of these heart conditions increases as you get older. If you have a family history of heart disease or are otherwise concerned about the health of your heart, it’s always a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider. They will be able to perform a medical assessment and determine whether testing is needed, such as using an EKG heart test. 

Practicing healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to prevent heart disease. This includes daily practices like stress management, physical activity, eating a nutrient-rich diet, not smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption. 

If you’re having significant symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, or pain in your arm or jaw, go immediately to the closest E.R. or call 9-1-1.

Visit urgent care to take an EKG heart test

We offer EKGs at most of our locations to help you be as heart-healthy as possible! If you need help assessing and treating asthma, come see the experts at an urgent care location near you. If you have a minor injury or illness, don’t put off getting the care you need. We’re open seven days a week to care for you. You can walk in or you can save your spot online. We offer an easy check-in process and we’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant