It can be scary to be diagnosed with a heart condition. Thankfully, doctors have a number of diagnostic tests to assess the health of the heart and identify diseases that affect it—most often, an electrocardiogram (known as an ECG or EKG), or an Echocardiogram. Understanding these tests can make the process a little less daunting and help you consider beneficial lifestyle choices for heart health.
Below, we’ll walk you through what these tests are, how they differ, and some other lifestyle shifts to support your heart health.
The heart is a vital organ to life—we know, Biology 101. It pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, keeping organs well-supplied with everything they need to run smoothly. The health of the heart affects overall health in a number of important ways.
Coronary heart disease happens when a waxy build-up of plaque narrows the arteries, limiting blood flow to the heart muscle. Less blood flow means your heart can’t pump as well, making cells function less effectively. This can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and raise the risk of heart attack if the plaque dislodges.
Other organs like the kidneys can be affected by a weakened heart. On the other hand, a healthy heart helps maintain low blood pressure, putting us less at risk for heart attacks, strokes, and dementia.
Electrocardiograms (ECG) and electrocardiographs (EKG) are used by doctors to measure the electrical activity of the heart. Electric impulses cause the heart to beat and pump blood throughout the body, so tracing this electric wave is a way of evaluating how well the heart is functioning. During this test, electrodes (small, plastic patches that stick to the skin) are placed at certain spots on the chest, arms, and legs.
ECGs and EKGs are actually the same test. They are sometimes referred to by these different acronyms, but the test is still identical—they can be referred to as either an electrocardiogram or an electrocardiograph. The confusion between the two different acronyms stems from the English spelling—electrocardiogram—and the German spelling—elektrokardiogramm.
It is important to note there are several varieties of this electric impulse test beyond the traditional one we see in hospitals and cardiologists’ offices:
An echocardiogram is different from an ECK/EKG. An echocardiogram, or echo for short, is an ultrasound test that uses a hand-held wand—similar to a pregnancy ultrasound that shows images of a fetus—to provide a view of the heart in action. It uses high-frequency sound waves to create the images and shows how effectively the heart is pumping blood. An echo may be done in tandem with a Doppler ultrasound or Color Doppler to give physicians an assessment of how well a patient’s blood is flowing through the heart valves.
Both an ECG/EKG and echo are painless and non-invasive. There’s no side effects to either test. An ECG/EKG can take about five minutes whereas an Echo might take between 20 minutes to an hour. The main difference between the two tests is when they’re used and what they show. An echo shows the mechanics of how the heart moves and performs. An EKG/ECG primarily shows the heart’s rhythm through a graph display that measures the electrical impulses of heart beats.
It’s important to understand that, since they provide different data, both of these tests can be performed in conjunction with each other. Together they give a better understanding of a patient’s heart health.
Your cardiologist or attending physician will determine if you need an ECG/EKG and/or an echo. The ECG/EKG is the most commonly ordered type of heart test. If you go to the ER with chest pains or other heart-related symptoms, this is most likely the first test you’ll get. The ECG/EKG traces the pumping of the heart, giving vital statistics on heart rhythm, heart rate, and can highlight abnormalities. It’s a fast and efficient way to determine if someone may be suffering a heart attack.
An echo, with its detailed imaging, will be able to show signs of heart disease. The images will also be able to show the structure and function of the heart, including:
In general, think of the ECG/EKG as the fast way to get a general view of the heart’s status and the echo as a more in-depth way to gain more detailed, accurate information if the EKG indicates a problem.
Keeping your heart healthy is an essential part of doing all that you can to live a long, active life. The good news is that most studies show there are a host of accessible lifestyle habits that can keep a heart strong and healthy.
Always consult your doctor before undertaking any new workouts. Study after study shows that just like any other muscle, in order to be strong, the heart needs a workout. This doesn’t mean you have to suffer through grueling high-intensity training. Even a half-hour jog a day gives significant benefits to the heart.
You may have already heard this advice, but it’s definitely worth repeating. Quitting smoking can significantly improve the health of your heart. In fact, after five years of not smoking, in one study, those who quit significantly lowered their risk of heart disease compared to those who still smoke.
Added weight can put a strain on the heart. Combining a healthy diet with regular exercise can go a long way to shedding pounds and improving heart health.
Eating well for your health doesn’t mean being forced into a restrictive, bland diet. There’s plenty of appealing foods that benefit your heart, including:
Stress is often unavoidable, but chronic stress can have a negative impact on your heart health. But you can focus on setting up habits that help manage stress by including meditation into your daily schedule, giving yourself regular downtime, and planning extended breaks away from work to mentally recharge.
Taking care of your heart is essential for your overall health and wellbeing, and practicing healthy lifestyle habits can prevent you from experiencing heart complications. But if you do encounter issues with your heart, getting informed about the test you may have and what they may mean is a step in the right direction. Knowledge about these heart tests can empower you to get healthy, stay healthy, and take care of your health—and your heart.