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The EKG device detects and amplifies the tiny electrical changes on the skin that are caused when the heart muscle depolarizes during each heartbeat. At rest, each heart muscle cell has a negative charge (membrane potential) across its outer wall (or cell membrane).

Increasing this negative charge towards zero (via the infux of the positive ions, Na+ and Ca++) is called depolarization, which activates the mechanisms in the cell that cause it to contract.

During each heartbeat a healthy heart will have an orderly progression of a wave of depolarisation that is triggered by the cells in the sinoatrial node, spreads out through the atrium, passes through “intrinsic conduction pathways” and then spreads all over the ventricles. This is detected as tiny rises and falls in the voltage between two electrodes placed either side of the heart which is displayed as a wavy line either on a screen or on paper.

This display indicates the overall rhythm of the heart and weaknesses in different parts of the heart muscle. Usually more than 2 electrodes are used and they can be combined into a number of pairs (For example: Left arm (LA), right arm (RA) and left leg (LL) electrodes form the three pairs LA+RA, LA+LL, and RA+LL). The output from each pair is known as a lead. Each lead is said to look at the heart from a different angle. Different types of EKGs can be referred to by the number of leads that are recorded, for example 3-lead, 5-lead or 12-lead EKGs (sometimes simply “a 12-lead”).

A 12-lead EKG is one in which 12 different electrical signals are recorded at approximately the same time and will often be used as a one-off recording of an EKG, traditionally printed out as a paper copy. 3- and 5-lead EKGs tend to be monitored continuously and viewed only on the screen of an appropriate monitoring device, for example during an operation or whilst being transported in an ambulance. There may or may not be any permanent record of a 3- or 5-lead EKG, depending on the equipment used.