Clinical Review ABC of clinical electrocardiography

Introduction. I—Leads, rate, rhythm, and cardiac axis

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7334.415 (Published 16 February 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:415
  1. Steve Meek,
  2. Francis Morris

    Electrocardiography is a fundamental part of cardiovascular assessment. It is an essential tool for investigating cardiac arrhythmias and is also useful in diagnosing cardiac disorders such as myocardial infarction. Familiarity with the wide range of patterns seen in the electrocardiograms of normal subjects and an understanding of the effects of non-cardiac disorders on the trace are prerequisites to accurate interpretation.

    The His-Purkinje conduction system

    The contraction and relaxation of cardiac muscle results from the depolarisation and repolarisation of myocardial cells. These electrical changes are recorded via electrodes placed on the limbs and chest wall and are transcribed on to graph paper to produce an electrocardiogram (commonly known as an ECG).

    The sinoatrial node acts as a natural pacemaker and initiates atrial depolarisation. The impulse is propagated to the ventricles by the atrioventricular node and spreads in a coordinated fashion throughout the ventricles via the specialised conducting tissue of the His-Purkinje system. Thus, after delay in the atrioventricular mode, atrial contraction is followed by rapid and coordinated contraction of the ventricles.

    The electrocardiogram is recorded on to standard paper travelling at a rate of 25 mm/s. The paper is divided into large squares, each measuring 5 mm wide and equivalent to 0.2 s. Each large square is five small squares in width, and each small square is 1 mm wide and equivalent to 0.04 s.

    Throughout this article the duration of waveforms will be expressed as 0.04 s = 1 mm = 1 small square

    The electrical activity detected by the electrocardiogram machine is measured in millivolts. Machines are calibrated so that a signal with an amplitude of 1 mV moves the recording stylus vertically 1 cm. Throughout this text, the amplitude of waveforms will be expressed as: 0.1 mV = 1 mm = 1 small square.

    Standard calibration signal

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