Children's Health and Wellness

Electrocardiography in Children

What is electrocardiography (ECG)?

Electrocardiography (ECG) is a simple, fast test to check the electrical activity of your child's heart as blood moves through it. Abnormal ECG results may mean there is a problem with your child's heart.

Why might my child need an ECG?

Some conditions which may cause changes in the ECG pattern include:

  • An enlarged heart. Conditions such as heart defects present at birth (congenital), problems with heart valves, high blood pressure, or heart failure may cause an enlarged heart.
  • Ischemia. This means the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen due to fatty buildup in the arteries, preventing adequate blood flow.
  • Conduction disorders. This means a problem with the heart's electrical system. The heart may beat too fast, too slow, or at an uneven rate.
  • Abnormal electrolytes. This means having too much or too little of some minerals (electrolytes) in the blood. The minerals include potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
  • Pericarditis. This is an inflammation or infection of the sac that surrounds the heart.
  • Chest injury. This could be from a car accident.

An ECG may also be done for other reasons. For example, the healthcare provider might want to look for problems during a checkup or physical exam, or before surgery or another procedure.

What are the risks of an ECG?

There are no risks associated with ECG. Some children may have a reaction to the adhesive used to attach the ECG leads.

How do I get my child ready for an ECG?

Your child does not need to do anything special for an ECG. The technician will explain how the test is done.

What happens during an ECG?

An ECG can be done almost anywhere. The equipment is very compact and portable. The equipment used includes the ECG machine, skin electrodes, and lead wires. The wires attach the electrodes to the ECG machine.

An ECG takes about 5 to 10 minutes, including attaching and detaching electrodes.

An ECG typically includes the following steps:

  • Your child will lie flat on a table or bed. He or she will need to lie still and not talk during the procedure. Parents can usually be present in the room. 
  • The ECG technician will attach small plastic patches (electrodes) to your child's chest. One electrode will be attached to each arm and leg.
  • The lead wires will be attached to the electrodes.
  • The ECG machine is started. It will take only a few minutes for the test to be completed.
  • Once the test is done, the technician will disconnect the leads and remove the electrodes.

What happens after an ECG?

Your child's healthcare provider will look at the results. Depending on the results, your child's provider may order more tests or refer you to a pediatric cardiologist. This is a doctor with special training to treat heart problems in children.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure for your child make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason your child is having the test or procedure
  • What results to expect and what they mean
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where your child is to have the test or procedure
  • Who will do the procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
  • What would happen if your child did not have the test or procedure
  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
  • When and how will you get the results
  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or your child has problems
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Print Source: Screening for Coronary Heart Disease With Electrocardiography: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. Moyer. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157:512-18.
Online Source: American Heart Associationhttp://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/SymptomsDiagnosisofHeartAttack/Electrocardiogram-ECG-or-EKG_UCM_309050_Article.jsp
Online Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institutehttp://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hhw/printall-index.html
Online Editor: Metzger, Geri
Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F., III, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Gandelman, Glenn, MD, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 4/17/2016
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