An ECG is the best way to measure and diagnose abnormal rhythms of the heart, particularly abnormal rhythms caused by damage to the conductive tissue that carries electrical signals, or abnormal rhythms caused by electrolyte imbalances. In a myocardial infarction (MI), the ECG can identify if the heart muscle has been damaged in specific areas, though not all areas of the heart are covered. The ECG cannot reliably measure the pumping ability of the heart, for which ultrasound-based (echocardiography) or nuclear medicine tests are used. It is possible for a human or other animal to be in cardiac arrest, but still have a normal ECG signal (a condition known as pulseless electrical activity).
The ECG 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, called the membrane potential, across its cell membrane. Decreasing this negative charge towards zero, via the influx of the positive cations, 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 the atrioventracular node 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 two 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 looks 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 ECGs (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 ECG, traditionally printed out as a paper copy. Three- and 5-lead ECGs 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 ECG, depending on the equipment used.