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There may be no three letters in the world of medicine more powerful than “EKG.” Short for “electrocardiogram,” an EKG (sometimes referred to as ECG) is a simple procedure performed in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices. While it may be simple, it packs a punch: EKGs can help determine heart health with the press of just a few buttons.

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What Is an EKG?

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, an EKG is a painless procedure used to record a patient’s electrical heart activity. Because each heartbeat sends an electrical signal from the top of the heart to the bottom (signaling the heart to contract and pump blood throughout the body), an EKG is often the quickest and easiest way to assess the inner workings of the cardiovascular system.

What Can an EKG Show?

An EKG can show many things. It can demonstrate how well and fast a person’s heart is beating, whether the heartbeat is steady or irregular, whether there is an arrhythmia present, whether the heart rate is too slow and the strength and timing of the electrical signals that are instructing the heart to beat. An EKG may be able to help diagnose certain congenital heart defects, angina, heart inflammation, past or present heart attack and electrolyte imbalances. While the EKG is very effective in helping a doctor determine heart health, it does have its limitations. For this reason, a patient may need to undergo further testing, such as chest x-ray, nuclear scans, echo-cardiograms or heart catheterizations, to get a definitive diagnosis. A doctor may also order a stress EKG, a test that involves undergoing an EKG while the heart is under stress (either through exercise or, if the patient is unable to exercise, medications that speed up the heart rate).

How Long Does an EKG Take?

Decades ago, an EKG was a time-consuming procedure filled with sticky goo and instructions to stay still. These days, EKGs are much quicker. While the EKG itself only takes about 20 seconds, the pre- and post-procedure can take two or three minutes.

What Are the Risks of an EKG?

Despite its name, an EKG doesn’t involve any electricity passing through one’s body. For this reason, EKGs come with no serious risks. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, some patients experience a little discomfort, similar to the pain of removing a bandage, tape or other adhesive substance from the body. On occasion, the electrodes used during the procedure may cause a reaction, which can leave the patient with red, swollen skin. These side effects are quite minor and easily treated.

Why Are EKGs Performed?

EKGs may be performed for several reasons, including the age of the patient (some doctors prefer to test all patients over the age of 40); family and personal history (patients with a family or personal history of heart problems may be urged to get annual EKGs); and diagnoses (if a patient is having chest pains or other signs of a heart disorder, an EKG will likely be among the first tests ordered). EKGs may also be ordered prior to surgical or other invasive procedures to ensure that the heart is strong enough to withstand stress.