What is an abnormal EKG?

An electrocardiogram (EKG) measures your heart’s electrical activity. This noninvasive test can measure many things, from how fast the heart beats, to how well the heart’s chambers are conducting electrical energy.

An abnormal EKG can mean many things. Sometimes EKG abnormalities are a normal variation of a heart’s rhythm, which does not affect your health. Other times, an abnormal EKG can signal a medical emergency, such as a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or a dangerous arrhythmia. A doctor or medical professional trained in reading EKGs can interpret the readings to determine if you need further treatments.

How does an EKG work?

An EKG machine is typically a portable machine that has 12 “leads” or long, flexible tubes attached to sticky electrodes. These are placed on designated areas around the heart and on the arms and legs. These electrodes sense the electrical impulses coming from multiple directions. Undergoing an EKG procedure isn’t painful. You don’t have to do anything special to prepare for the test. The test itself typically takes five minutes or less.

The EKG machine doesn’t generate electricity. Instead, it conducts and measures electrical activity. Typically, the heart conducts electricity in a standard pathway: first from the right atrium to the left atrium. The current then goes to the atrioventricular (AV) node, which signals the ventricles to contract. The current then flows to an area known as the bundle of His. This area divides into fibers that provide current to the left and right ventricles.

Any disruption in this current can affect the heart’s ability to work well. Ideally, an EKG can measure any potential disruptions.

What does an abnormal EKG indicate?

Because an EKG measures so many different aspects of the heart’s function, there are multiple results an EKG can signify, including:

When to seek medical help

Several symptoms can indicate that you may need an EKG to determine if your heart is functioning normally.

Seek emergency medical attention if you experience:

How is an abnormal EKG treated?

Treatment response to an abnormal EKG will typically depend upon the underlying cause. For example, some people experience a very slow heartbeat where the heart is not conducting electrical signals in the correct order. This person may require a pacemaker, which helps to restore the heart to a more normal rhythm.

People with electrolyte imbalances may require correction with medications or fluids. For example, a dehydrated person may have imbalanced electrolytes that are causing an abnormal EKG. This person may require fluids, electrolyte containing beverages, or medicines to restore electrolytes.

Sometimes, a doctor may not recommend any treatments for an abnormal EKG if a person is not experiencing troublesome symptoms or if the abnormality is not cause for concern.