Harrison's Cardiovascular Medicine 2 ed.


Ary L. Goldberger

An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is a graphic recording of electric potentials generated by the heart. The signals are detected by means of metal electrodes attached to the extremities and chest wall and then are amplified and recorded by the electrocardiograph. ECG leads actually display the instantaneous differences in potential between the electrodes.

The clinical utility of the ECG derives from its immediate availability as a noninvasive, inexpensive, and highly versatile test. In addition to its use in detecting arrhythmias, conduction disturbances, and myocardial ischemia, electrocardiography may reveal other findings related to life-threatening metabolic disturbances (e.g., hyperkalemia) or increased susceptibility to sudden cardiac death (e.g., QT prolongation syndromes).


(See also Chaps. 15 and 16) Depolarization of the heart is the initiating event for cardiac contraction. The electric currents that spread through the heart are produced by three components: cardiac pacemaker cells, specialized conduction tissue, and the heart muscle itself. The ECG, however, records only the depolarization (stimulation) and repolarization (recovery) potentials generated by the atrial and ventricular myocardium.

The depolarization stimulus for the normal heartbeat originates in the sinoatrial (SA) node(Fig. 11-1), or sinus node, a collection of pacemaker cells. These cells fire spontaneously; that is, they exhibit automaticity. The first phase of cardiac electrical activation is the spread of the depolarization wave through the right and left atria, followed by atrial contraction. Next, the impulse stimulates pacemaker and specialized conduction tissues in the atrioventricular (AV) nodal and His-bundle areas; together, these two regions constitute the AV junction. The bundle of His bifurcates into two main branches, the right and left bundles, which rapidly transmit depolarization wave fronts to the right and left ventricular myocardium by way of Purkinje fibers. The main left bundle bifurcates into two primary subdivisions: a left anterior fascicle and a left posterior fascicle. The depolarization wave fronts then spread through the ventricular wall, from endocardium to epicardium, triggering ventricular contraction.



Schematic of the cardiac conduction system.

Since the cardiac depolarization and repolarization waves have direction and magnitude, they can be represented by vectors. Vector analysis illustrates a central concept of electrocardiography: The ECG records the complex spatial and temporal summation of electrical potentials from multiple myocardial fibers conducted to the surface of the body. This principle accounts for inherent limitations in both ECG sensitivity (activity from certain cardiac regions may be canceled out or may be too weak to be recorded) and specificity (the same vectorial sum can result from either a selective gain or a loss of forces in opposite directions).


The ECG waveforms are labeled alphabetically, beginning with the P wave, which represents atrial depolarization (Fig. 11-2). The QRS complex represents ventricular depolarization, and the ST-T-U complex (ST segment, T wave, and U wave) represents ventricular repolarization. The J point is the junction between the end of the QRS complex and the beginning of the ST segment. Atrial repolarization is usually too low in amplitude to be detected, but it may become apparent in conditions such as acute pericarditis and atrial infarction.

The QRS-T waveforms of the surface ECG correspond in a general way with the different phases of simultaneously obtained ventricular action potentials, the intracellular recordings from single myocardial fibers (Chap. 15). The rapid upstroke (phase 0) of the action potential corresponds to the onset of QRS. The plateau (phase 2) corresponds to the isoelectric ST segment, and active repolarization (phase 3) corresponds to the inscription of the T wave. Factors that decrease the slope of phase 0 by impairing the influx of Na+ (e.g., hyperkalemia and drugs such as flecainide) tend to increase QRS duration. Conditions that prolong phase 2 (amiodarone, hypocalcemia) increase the QT interval. In contrast, shortening of ventricular repolarization (phase 2), such as by digitalis administration or hypercalcemia, abbreviates the ST segment.

The electrocardiogram ordinarily is recorded on special graph paper that is divided into 1-mm2 grid-like boxes. Since the ECG paper speed is generally 25 mm/s, the smallest (1 mm) horizontal divisions correspond to 0.04 (40 ms), with heavier lines at intervals of 0.20 s (200 ms). Vertically, the ECG graph measures the amplitude of a specific wave or deflection (1 mV = 10 mm with standard calibration; the voltage criteria for hypertrophy mentioned below are given in millimeters). There are four major ECG intervals: R-R, PR, QRS, and QT (Fig. 11-2). The heart rate (beats per minute) can be computed readily from the interbeat (R-R) interval by dividing the number of large (0.20 s) time units between consecutive R waves into 300 or the number of small (0.04 s) units into 1500. The PR interval measures the time (normally 120–200 ms) between atrial and ventricular depolarization, which includes the physiologic delay imposed by stimulation of cells in the AV junction area. The QRS interval (normally 100–110 ms or less) reflects the duration of ventricular depolarization. The QT interval includes both ventricular depolarization and repolarization times and varies inversely with the heart rate. A rate-related (“corrected”) QT interval, QTc, can be calculated as QT/√R-R and normally is ≤0.44 s. (Some references give QTc upper normal limits as 0.43 s in men and 0.45 s in women. Also, a number of different formulas have been proposed, without consensus, for calculating the QTc.)



Basic ECG waveforms and intervals. Not shown is the R-R interval, the time between consecutive QRS complexes.

The QRS complex is subdivided into specific deflections or waves. If the initial QRS deflection in a particular lead is negative, it is termed a Q wave; the first positive deflection is termed an R wave. A negative deflection after an R wave is an S wave. Subsequent positive or negative waves are labeled R′ and S′, respectively. Lowercase letters (qrs) are used for waves of relatively small amplitude. An entirely negative QRS complex is termed a QS wave.


The 12 conventional ECG leads record the difference in potential between electrodes placed on the surface of the body. These leads are divided into two groups: six limb (extremity) leads and six chest (precordial) leads. The limb leads record potentials transmitted onto the frontal plane(Fig. 11-3A), and the chest leads record potentials transmitted onto the horizontal plane(Fig. 11-3B).



The six frontal plane (A) and six horizontal plane (B) leads provide a three-dimensional representation of cardiac electrical activity.

The spatial orientation and polarity of the six frontal plane leads is represented on the hexaxial diagram (Fig. 11-4). The six chest leads (Fig. 11-5) are unipolar recordings obtained by electrodes in the following positions: lead V1, fourth intercostal space, just to the right of the sternum; lead V2, fourth intercostal space, just to the left of the sternum; lead V3, midway between V2 and V4; lead V4, midclavicular line, fifth intercostal space; lead V5, anterior axillary line, same level as V4; and lead V6, midaxillary line, same level as V4 and V5.



The frontal plane (limb or extremity) leads are represented on a hexaxial diagram. Each ECG lead has a specific spatial orientation and polarity. The positive pole of each lead axis (solid line) and the negative pole (hatched line) are designated by their angular position relative to the positive pole of lead I (0°). The mean electrical axis of the QRS complex is measured with respect to this display.



The horizontal plane (chest or precordial) leads are obtained with electrodes in the locations shown.

Together, the frontal and horizontal plane electrodes provide a three-dimensional representation of cardiac electrical activity. Each lead can be likened to a different video camera angle “looking” at the same events—atrial and ventricular depolarization and repolarization—from different spatial orientations. The conventional 12-lead ECG can be supplemented with additional leads in special circumstances. For example, right precordial leads V3R, V4R, etc., are useful in detecting evidence of acute right ventricular ischemia. Bedside monitors and ambulatory ECG (Holter) recordings usually employ only one or two modified leads. Intracardiac electrocardiography and electrophysiologic testing are discussed in Chaps. 15 and 16.

The ECG leads are configured so that a positive (upright) deflection is recorded in a lead if a wave of depolarization spreads toward the positive pole of that lead, and a negative deflection is recorded if the wave spreads toward the negative pole. If the mean orientation of the depolarization vector is at right angles to a particular lead axis, a biphasic (equally positive and negative) deflection will be recorded.



The normal atrial depolarization vector is oriented downward and toward the subject’s left, reflecting the spread of depolarization from the sinus node to the right and then the left atrial myocardium. Since this vector points toward the positive pole of lead II and toward the negative pole of lead aVR, the normal P wave will be positive in lead II and negative in lead aVR. By contrast, activation of the atria from an ectopic pacemaker in the lower part of either atrium or in the AV junction region may produce retrograde P waves (negative in lead II, positive in lead aVR). The normal P wave in lead V1 may be biphasic with a positive component reflecting right atrial depolarization, followed by a small (<1 mm2) negative component reflecting left atrial depolarization.


Normal ventricular depolarization proceeds as a rapid, continuous spread of activation wave fronts. This complex process can be divided into two major sequential phases, and each phase can be represented by a mean vector (Fig. 11-6). The first phase is depolarization of the interventricular septum from the left to the right and anteriorly (vector 1). The second results from the simultaneous depolarization of the right and left ventricles; it normally is dominated by the more massive left ventricle, so that vector 2 points leftward and posteriorly. Therefore, a right precordial lead (V1) will record this biphasic depolarization process with a small positive deflection (septal r wave) followed by a larger negative deflection (S wave). A left precordial lead, e.g., V6, will record the same sequence with a small negative deflection (septal q wave) followed by a relatively tall positive deflection (R wave). Intermediate leads show a relative increase in R-wave amplitude (normal R-wave progression) and a decrease in S-wave amplitude progressing across the chest from right to left. The precordial lead where the R and S waves are of approximately equal amplitude is referred to as the transition zone (usually V3 or V4(Fig. 11-7).



Ventricular depolarization can be divided into two major phases, each represented by a vectorA. The first phase (arrow 1) denotes depolarization of the ventricular septum, beginning on the left side and spreading to the right. This process is represented by a small “septal” r wave in lead V1 and a small septal q wave in lead V6B. Simultaneous depolarization of the left and right ventricles (LV and RV) constitutes the second phase. Vector 2 is oriented to the left and posteriorly, reflecting the electrical predominance of the LV. C. Vectors (arrows) representing these two phases are shown in reference to the horizontal plane leads. (After AL Goldberger: Clinical Electrocardiography: A Simplified Approach, 8th ed. Philadelphia, Elsevier/Saunders, 2013.)



Normal electrocardiogram from a healthy subject. Sinus rhythm is present with a heart rate of 75 beats per minute. PR interval is 0.16 s; QRS interval (duration) is 0.08 s; QT interval is 0.36 s; QTc is 0.40 s; the mean QRS axis is about +70°. The precordial leads show normal R-wave progression with the transition zone (R wave = S wave) in lead V3.

The QRS pattern in the extremity leads may vary considerably from one normal subject to another depending on the electrical axis of the QRS, which describes the mean orientation of the QRS vector with reference to the six frontal plane leads. Normally, the QRS axis ranges from –30° to +100° (Fig. 11-4). An axis more negative than –30° is referred to as left axis deviation, and an axis more positive than +100° is referred to as right axis deviation. Left axis deviation may occur as a normal variant but is more commonly associated with left ventricular hypertrophy, a block in the anterior fascicle of the left bundle system (left anterior fascicular block or hemiblock), or inferior myocardial infarction. Right axis deviation also may occur as a normal variant (particularly in children and young adults), as a spurious finding due to reversal of the left and right arm electrodes, or in conditions such as right ventricular overload (acute or chronic), infarction of the lateral wall of the left ventricle, dextrocardia, left pneumothorax, and left posterior fascicular block.


Normally, the mean T-wave vector is oriented roughly concordant with the mean QRS vector (within about 45° in the frontal plane). Since depolarization and repolarization are electrically opposite processes, this normal QRS–T-wave vector concordance indicates that repolarization normally must proceed in the reverse direction from depolarization (i.e., from ventricular epicardium to endocardium). The normal U wave is a small, rounded deflection (≤1 mm) that follows the T wave and usually has the same polarity as the T wave. An abnormal increase in U-wave amplitude is most commonly due to drugs (e.g., dofetilide, amiodarone, sotalol, quinidine, procainamide, disopyramide) or to hypokalemia. Very prominent U waves are a marker of increased susceptibility to the torsades de pointes type of ventricular tachycardia (Chap. 16). Inversion of the U wave in the precordial leads is abnormal and may be a subtle sign of ischemia.



Right atrial overload (acute or chronic) may lead to an increase in P-wave amplitude (≥2.5 mm) (Fig. 11-8). Left atrial overload typically produces a biphasic P wave in V1 with a broad negative component or a broad (≥120 ms), often notched P wave in one or more limb leads (Fig. 11-8). This pattern may also occur with left atrial conduction delays in the absence of actual atrial enlargement, leading to the more general designation of left atrial abnormality.



Right atrial (RA) overload may cause tall, peaked P waves in the limb or precordial leads. Left atrial (LA) abnormality may cause broad, often notched P waves in the limb leads and a biphasic P wave in lead V1 with a prominent negative component representing delayed depolarization of the LA. (After MK Park, WG Guntheroth: How to Read Pediatric ECGs, 4th ed. St. Louis, Mosby/Elsevier, 2006.)

Right ventricular hypertrophy due to a pressure load (as from pulmonic valve stenosis or pulmonary artery hypertension) is characterized by a relatively tall R wave in lead V1 (R ≥ S wave), usually with right axis deviation (Fig. 11-9); alternatively, there may be a qR pattern in V1 or V3R. ST depression and T-wave inversion in the right-to-midprecordial leads are also often present. This pattern, formerly called right ventricular “strain,” is attributed to repolarization abnormalities in acutely or chronically overloaded muscle. Prominent S waves may occur in the left lateral precordial leads. Right ventricular hypertrophy due to ostium secundum–type atrial septal defects, with the accompanying right ventricular volume overload, is commonly associated with an incomplete or complete right bundle branch block pattern with a rightward QRS axis.



Left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH) increases the amplitude of electrical forces directed to the left and posteriorly. In addition, repolarization abnormalities may cause ST-segment depression and T-wave inversion in leads with a prominent R wave. Right ventricular hypertrophy (RVH) may shift the QRS vector to the right; this effect usually is associated with an R, RS, or qR complex in lead V1. T-wave inversions may be present in right precordial leads.

Acute cor pulmonale due to pulmonary embolism, for example, may be associated with a normal ECG or a variety of abnormalities. Sinus tachycardia is the most common arrhythmia, although other tachyarrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation or flutter, may occur. The QRS axis may shift to the right, sometimes in concert with the so-called S1Q3T3 pattern (prominence of the S wave in lead I and the Q wave in lead III, with T-wave inversion in lead III). Acute right ventricular dilation also may be associated with slow R-wave progression and ST-T abnormalities in V1 to V4 simulating acute anterior infarction. A right ventricular conduction disturbance may appear.

Chronic cor pulmonale due to obstructive lung disease (Chap. 17) usually does not produce the classic ECG patterns of right ventricular hypertrophy noted earlier. Instead of tall right precordial R waves, chronic lung disease more typically is associated with small R waves in right-to-midprecordial leads (slow R-wave progression) due in part to downward displacement of the diaphragm and the heart. Low-voltage complexes are commonly present, owing to hyperaeration of the lungs.

A number of different voltage criteria for left ventricular hypertrophy (Fig. 11-9) have been proposed on the basis of the presence of tall left precordial R waves and deep right precordial S waves (e.g., SV1+ [RV5 or RV6] >35 mm). Repolarization abnormalities (ST depression with T-wave inversions, formerly called the left ventricular “strain” pattern) also may appear in leads with prominent R waves. However, prominent precordial voltages may occur as a normal variant, especially in athletic or young individuals. Left ventricular hypertrophy may increase limb lead voltage with or without increased precordial voltage (e.g., RaVL + SV3 >20 mm in women and >28 mm in men). The presence of left atrial abnormality increases the likelihood of underlying left ventricular hypertrophy in cases with borderline voltage criteria. Left ventricular hypertrophy often progresses to incomplete or complete left bundle branch block. The sensitivity of conventional voltage criteria for left ventricular hypertrophy is decreased in obese persons and smokers. ECG evidence for left ventricular hypertrophy is a major noninvasive marker of increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality rates, including sudden cardiac death. However, because of false-positive and false-negative diagnoses, the ECG is of limited utility in diagnosing atrial or ventricular enlargement. More definitive information is provided by echocardiography (Chap. 12).


Intrinsic impairment of conduction in either the right or the left bundle system (intraventricular conduction disturbances) leads to prolongation of the QRS interval. With complete bundle branch blocks, the QRS interval is ≥120 ms in duration; with incomplete blocks, the QRS interval is between 100 and 120 ms. The QRS vector usually is oriented in the direction of the myocardial region where depolarization is delayed (Fig. 11-10). Thus, with right bundle branch block, the terminal QRS vector is oriented to the right and anteriorly (rSR′ in V1 and qRS in V6, typically). Left bundle branch block alters both early and later phases of ventricular depolarization. The major QRS vector is directed to the left and posteriorly. In addition, the normal early left-to-right pattern of septal activation is disrupted such that septal depolarization proceeds from right to left as well. As a result, left bundle branch block generates wide, predominantly negative (QS) complexes in lead V1 and entirely positive (R) complexes in lead V6. A pattern identical to that of left bundle branch block, preceded by a sharp spike, is seen in most cases of electronic right ventricular pacing because of the relative delay in left ventricular activation.


FIGURE 11-10

Comparison of typical QRS-T patterns in right bundle branch block (RBBB) and left bundle branch block (LBBB) with the normal pattern in leads V1 and V6. Note the secondary T-wave inversions (arrows) in leads with an rSR′ complex with RBBB and in leads with a wide R wave with LBBB.

Bundle branch block may occur in a variety of conditions. In subjects without structural heart disease, right bundle branch block is seen more commonly than left bundle branch block. Right bundle branch block also occurs with heart disease, both congenital (e.g., atrial septal defect) and acquired (e.g., valvular, ischemic). Left bundle branch block is often a marker of one of four underlying conditions associated with increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality rates: coronary heart disease (frequently with impaired left ventricular function), hypertensive heart disease, aortic valve disease, and cardiomyopathy. Bundle branch blocks may be chronic or intermittent. A bundle branch block may be rate-related; for example, it often occurs when the heart rate exceeds some critical value.

Bundle branch blocks and depolarization abnormalities secondary to artificial pacemakers not only affect ventricular depolarization (QRS) but also are characteristically associated with secondary repolarization (ST-T) abnormalities. With bundle branch blocks, the T wave is typically opposite in polarity to the last deflection of the QRS (Fig. 11-10). This discordance of the QRS–T-wave vectors is caused by the altered sequence of repolarization that occurs secondary to altered depolarization. In contrast, primary repolarization abnormalities are independent of QRS changes and are related instead to actual alterations in the electrical properties of the myocardial fibers themselves (e.g., in the resting membrane potential or action potential duration), not just to changes in the sequence of repolarization. Ischemia, electrolyte imbalance, and drugs such as digitalis all cause such primary ST–T-wave changes. Primary and secondary T-wave changes may coexist. For example, T-wave inversions in the right precordial leads with left bundle branch block or in the left precordial leads with right bundle branch block may be important markers of underlying ischemia or other abnormalities. A distinctive abnormality simulating right bundle branch block with ST-segment elevations in the right chest leads is seen with the Brugada pattern (Chap. 16).

Partial blocks (fascicular or “hemiblocks”) in the left bundle system (left anterior or posterior fascicular blocks) generally do not prolong the QRS duration substantially but instead are associated with shifts in the frontal plane QRS axis (leftward or rightward, respectively). More complex combinations of fascicular and bundle branch blocks may occur that involve the left and right bundle system. Examples of bifascicular block include right bundle branch block and left posterior fascicular block, right bundle branch block with left anterior fascicular block, and complete left bundle branch block. Chronic bifascicular block in an asymptomatic individual is associated with a relatively low risk of progression to high-degree AV heart block. In contrast, new bifascicular block with acute anterior myocardial infarction carries a much greater risk of complete heart block. Alternation of right and left bundle branch block is a sign of trifascicular disease. However, the presence of a prolonged PR interval and bifascicular block does not necessarily indicate trifascicular involvement, since this combination may arise with AV node disease and bifascicular block. Intraventricular conduction delays also can be caused by extrinsic (toxic) factors that slow ventricular conduction, particularly hyperkalemia or drugs (e.g., class 1 antiarrhythmic agents, tricyclic antidepressants, phenothiazines).

Prolongation of QRS duration does not necessarily indicate a conduction delay but may be due to preexcitation of the ventricles via a bypass tract, as in Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) patterns (Chap. 16) and related variants. The diagnostic triad of WPW consists of a wide QRS complex associated with a relatively short PR interval and slurring of the initial part of the QRS (delta wave), with the latter effect being due to aberrant activation of ventricular myocardium. The presence of a bypass tract predisposes to reentrant supraventricular tachyarrhythmias.


(See also Chap. 35) The ECG is a cornerstone in the diagnosis of acute and chronic ischemic heart disease. The findings depend on several key factors: the nature of the process (reversible [i.e., ischemia] versus irreversible [i.e., infarction]), the duration (acute versus chronic), the extent (transmural versus subendocardial), and localization (anterior versus inferoposterior), as well as the presence of other underlying abnormalities (ventricular hypertrophy, conduction defects).

Ischemia exerts complex time-dependent effects on the electrical properties of myocardial cells. Severe, acute ischemia lowers the resting membrane potential and shortens the duration of the action potential. Such changes cause a voltage gradient between normal and ischemic zones. As a consequence, current flows between those regions. These currents of injury are represented on the surface ECG by deviation of the ST segment (Fig. 11-11). When the acute ischemia is transmural, the ST vector usually is shifted in the direction of the outer (epicardial) layers, producing ST elevations and sometimes, in the earliest stages of ischemia, tall, positive so-called hyperacute T waves over the ischemic zone. With ischemia confined primarily to the subendocardium, the ST vector typically shifts toward the subendocardium and ventricular cavity, so that overlying (e.g., anterior precordial) leads show ST-segment depression (with ST elevation in lead aVR). Multiple factors affect the amplitude of acute ischemic ST deviations. Profound ST elevation or depression in multiple leads usually indicates very severe ischemia. From a clinical viewpoint, the division of acute myocardial infarction into ST-segment elevation and non-ST elevation types is useful since the efficacy of acute reperfusion therapy is limited to the former group.


FIGURE 11-11

Acute ischemia causes a current of injury. With predominant subendocardial ischemia (A), the resultant ST vector will be directed toward the inner layer of the affected ventricle and the ventricular cavity. Overlying leads therefore will record ST depression. With ischemia involving the outer ventricular layer (B) (transmural or epicardial injury), the ST vector will be directed outward. Overlying leads will record ST elevation.

The ECG leads are usually more helpful in localizing regions of ST elevation than non-ST elevation ischemia. For example, acute transmural anterior (including apical and lateral) wall ischemia is reflected by ST elevations or increased T-wave positivity in one or more of the precordial leads (V1–V6) and leads I and aVL. Inferior wall ischemia produces changes in leads II, III, and aVF. “Posterior” wall ischemia (usually associated with lateral or inferior involvement) may be indirectly recognized by reciprocal ST depressions in leads V1 to V3 (thus constituting an ST elevation “equivalent” acute coronary syndrome). Right ventricular ischemia usually produces ST elevations in right-sided chest leads (Fig. 11-5). When ischemic ST elevations occur as the earliest sign of acute infarction, they typically are followed within a period ranging from hours to days by evolving T-wave inversions and often by Q waves occurring in the same lead distribution. Reversible transmural ischemia, for example, due to coronary vasospasm (Prinzmetal’s variant angina and probably the Tako-Tsubo “stress” cardiomyopathy syndrome), may cause transient ST-segment elevations without development of Q waves, as may very early reperfusion in acute coronary syndromes. Depending on the severity and duration of ischemia, the ST elevations may resolve completely in minutes or be followed by T-wave inversions that persist for hours or even days. Patients with ischemic chest pain who present with deep T-wave inversions in multiple precordial leads (e.g., V1–V4) with or without cardiac enzyme elevations typically have severe obstruction in the left anterior descending coronary artery system (Fig. 11-12). In contrast, patients whose baseline ECG already shows abnormal T-wave inversions may develop T-wave normalization (pseudonormalization) during episodes of acute transmural ischemia.

With infarction, depolarization (QRS) changes often accompany repolarization (ST-T) abnormalities. Necrosis of sufficient myocardial tissue may lead to decreased R-wave amplitude or abnormal Q waves (even in the absence of transmurality) in the anterior or inferior leads (Fig. 11-13). Previously, abnormal Q waves were considered markers of transmural myocardial infarction, whereas subendocardial infarcts were thought not to produce Q waves. However, careful ECG-pathology correlative studies have indicated that transmural infarcts may occur without Q waves and that subendocardial (nontransmural) infarcts sometimes may be associated with Q waves. Therefore, infarcts are more appropriately classified as “Q-wave” or “non-Q-wave.” The major acute ECG changes in syndromes of ischemic heart disease are summarized schematically in Fig. 11-14. Loss of depolarization forces due to posterior or lateral infarction may cause reciprocal increases in R-wave amplitude in leads V1 and V2 without diagnostic Q waves in any of the conventional leads. Atrial infarction may be associated with PR-segment deviations due to an atrial current of injury, changes in P-wave morphology, or atrial arrhythmias.


FIGURE 11-12

Severe anterior wall ischemia (with or without infarction) may cause prominent T-wave inversions in the precordial leads. This pattern (sometimes referred to as Wellens T waves) is usually associated with a high-grade stenosis of the left anterior descending coronary artery.


FIGURE 11-13

Sequence of depolarization and repolarization changes with (A) acute anterior and (B) acute inferior wall Q-wave infarctions. With anterior infarcts, ST elevation in leads I and aVL and the precordial leads may be accompanied by reciprocal ST depressions in leads II, III, and aVF. Conversely, acute inferior (or posterolateral) infarcts may be associated with reciprocal ST depressions in leads V1 to V3(After AL Goldberger: Clinical Electrocardiography: A Simplified Approach, 8th ed. Philadelphia, Elsevier/Saunders, 2013.)

In the weeks and months after infarction, these ECG changes may persist or begin to resolve. Complete normalization of the ECG after Q-wave infarction is uncommon but may occur, particularly with smaller infarcts. In contrast, ST-segment elevations that persist for several weeks or more after a Q-wave infarct usually correlate with a severe underlying wall motion disorder (akinetic or dyskinetic zone), although not necessarily a frank ventricular aneurysm. ECG changes due to ischemia may occur spontaneously or may be provoked by various exercise protocols (stress electrocardiography; Chap. 33).

The ECG has important limitations in both sensitivity and specificity in the diagnosis of ischemic heart disease. Although a single normal ECG does not exclude ischemia or even acute infarction, a normal ECG throughout the course of an acute infarct is distinctly uncommon. Prolonged chest pain without diagnostic ECG changes therefore should always prompt a careful search for other noncoronary causes of chest pain (Chap. 4). Furthermore, the diagnostic changes of acute or evolving ischemia are often masked by the presence of left bundle branch block, electronic ventricular pacemaker patterns, and Wolff-Parkinson-White preexcitation. However, clinicians continue to overdiagnose ischemia or infarction based on the presence of ST-segment elevations or depressions; T-wave inversions; tall, positive T waves; or Q waves not related to ischemic heart disease (pseudoinfarct patterns). For example, ST-segment elevations simulating ischemia may occur with acute pericarditis or myocarditis, as a normal variant (including the typical “early repolarization” pattern), or in a variety of other conditions (Table 11-1). Similarly, tall, positive T waves do not invariably represent hyperacute ischemic changes but may also be caused by normal variants, hyperkalemia, cerebrovascular injury, and left ventricular volume overload due to mitral or aortic regurgitation, among other causes.


FIGURE 11-14

Variability of ECG patterns with acute myocardial ischemia. The ECG also may be normal or nonspecifically abnormal. Furthermore, these categorizations are not mutually exclusive. (After AL Goldberger: Clinical Electrocardiography: A Simplified Approach, 7th ed. St. Louis, Mosby/Elsevier, 2006.)

TABLE 11-1



ST-segment elevations and tall, positive T waves are common findings in leads V1 and V2 in left bundle branch block or left ventricular hypertrophy in the absence of ischemia. The differential diagnosis of Q waves includes physiologic or positional variants, ventricular hypertrophy, acute or chronic noncoronary myocardial injury, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and ventricular conduction disorders. Digoxin, ventricular hypertrophy, hypokalemia, and a variety of other factors may cause ST-segment depression mimicking subendocardial ischemia. Prominent T-wave inversion may occur with ventricular hypertrophy, cardiomyopathies, myocarditis, and cerebrovascular injury (particularly intracranial bleeds), among many other conditions.


A variety of metabolic and pharmacologic agents alter the ECG and, in particular, cause changes in repolarization (ST-T-U) and sometimes QRS prolongation. Certain life-threatening electrolyte disturbances may be diagnosed initially and monitored from the ECG. Hyperkalemia produces a sequence of changes (Fig. 11-15), usually beginning with narrowing and peaking (tenting) of the T waves. Further elevation of extracellular K+ leads to AV conduction disturbances, diminution in P-wave amplitude, and widening of the QRS interval. Severe hyperkalemia eventually causes cardiac arrest with a slow sinusoidal type of mechanism (“sine-wave” pattern) followed by asystole. Hypokalemia(Fig. 11-16) prolongs ventricular repolarization, often with prominent U waves. Prolongation of the QT interval is also seen with drugs that increase the duration of the ventricular action potential: class 1A antiarrhythmic agents and related drugs (e.g., quinidine, disopyramide, procainamide, tricyclic antidepressants, phenothiazines) and class III agents (e.g., amiodarone [Fig. 11-16], dofetilide, dronedarone, sotalol, ibutilide). Marked QT prolongation, sometimes with deep, wide T-wave inversions, may occur with intracranial bleeds, particularly subarachnoid hemorrhage (“CVA T-wave” pattern) (Fig. 11-16). Systemic hypothermia also prolongs repolarization, usually with a distinctive convex elevation of the J point (Osborn wave). Hypocalcemiatypically prolongs the QT interval (ST portion), whereas hypercalcemia shortens it (Fig. 11-17). Digitalis glycosides also shorten the QT interval, often with a characteristic “scooping” of the ST–T-wave complex (digitalis effect).


FIGURE 11-15

The earliest ECG change with hyperkalemia is usually peaking (“tenting”) of the T waves. With further increases in the serum potassium concentration, the QRS complexes widen, the P waves decrease in amplitude and may disappear, and finally a sine-wave pattern leads to asystole unless emergency therapy is given. (After AL Goldberger: Clinical Electrocardiography: A Simplified Approach, 8th ed. Philadelphia, Elsevier/Saunders, 2013.)


FIGURE 11-16

A variety of metabolic derangements, drug effects, and other factors may prolong ventricular repolarization with QT prolongation or prominent U waves. Prominent repolarization prolongation, particularly if due to hypokalemia, inherited “channelopathies,” or certain pharmacologic agents, indicates increased susceptibility to torsades des pointes–type ventricular tachycardia (Chap. 16). Marked systemic hypothermia is associated with a distinctive convex “hump” at the J point (Osborn wave, arrow) due to altered ventricular action potential characteristics. Note QRS and QT prolongation along with sinus tachycardia in the case of tricyclic antidepressant overdose.

Many other factors are associated with ECG changes, particularly alterations in ventricular repolarization. T-wave flattening, minimal T-wave inversions, or slight ST-segment depression (“nonspecific ST–T-wave changes”) may occur with a variety of electrolyte and acid-base disturbances, a variety of infectious processes, central nervous system disorders, endocrine abnormalities, many drugs, ischemia, hypoxia, and virtually any type of cardiopulmonary abnormality. Although subtle ST–T-wave changes may be markers of ischemia, transient nonspecific repolarization changes may also occur after a meal or with postural (orthostatic) change, hyperventilation, or exercise in healthy individuals.


FIGURE 11-17

Prolongation of the Q-T interval (ST-segment portion) is typical of hypocalcemia. Hypercalcemia may cause abbreviation of the ST segment and shortening of the QT interval.


Electrical alternans—a beat-to-beat alternation in one or more components of the ECG signal—is a common type of nonlinear cardiovascular response to a variety of hemodynamic and electrophysiologic perturbations. Total electrical alternans (P-QRS-T) with sinus tachycardia is a relatively specific sign of pericardial effusion, usually with cardiac tamponade. The mechanism relates to a periodic swinging motion of the heart in the effusion at a frequency exactly one-half the heart rate. Repolarization (ST-T or U wave) alternans is a sign of electrical instability and may precede ventricular tachyarrhythmias.


Accurate analysis of ECGs requires thoroughness and care. The patient’s age, gender, and clinical status should always be taken into account. Many mistakes in ECG interpretation are errors of omission. Therefore, a systematic approach is essential. The following 14 points should be analyzed carefully in every ECG: (1) standardization (calibration) and technical features (including lead placement and artifacts), (2) rhythm, (3) heart rate, (4) PR interval/AV conduction, (5) QRS interval, (6) QT/QTc interval, (7) mean QRS electrical axis, (8) P waves, (9) QRS voltages, (10) precordial R-wave progression, (11) abnormal Q waves, (12) ST segments, (13) T waves, and (14) U waves.

Only after analyzing all these points should the interpretation be formulated. Where appropriate, important clinical correlates or inferences should be mentioned. For example, sinus tachycardia with QRS and QT-(U) prolongation, especially in the context of changes in mental status, suggests tricyclic antidepressant overdose (Fig. 11-16). The triad of peaked T waves (hyperkalemia), a long QT due to ST-segment lengthening (hypocalcemia), and left ventricular hypertrophy (systemic hypertension) suggests chronic renal failure. Comparison with any previous ECGs is invaluable. The diagnosis and management of specific cardiac arrhythmias and conduction disturbances are discussed in Chaps. 15 and 16.


Computerized ECG systems are widely used for immediate retrieval of thousands of ECG records. Computer interpretation of ECGs still has major limitations. Incomplete or inaccurate readings are most likely with arrhythmias and complex abnormalities. Therefore, computerized interpretation (including measurements of basic ECG intervals) should not be accepted without careful clinician review.