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What EKG Machines Do

Unlike many very recent medical tools, electrocardiograph (EKG) machines have a long and respected history in Western medicine, dating back to the Victorian era. During this period in Western culture medicine finally came to be seen as firmly and inarguably science-based. The first EKG machines were developed when doctors of the period realized that our bodies produce a steady stream of electrical charges as a natural part of muscle-use.

The human heart at rest maintains a slight electrical charge in every cell. Like most electrical phenomenon, the charge is polarized. When the cell contracts the charge is spent and the cell is temporarily depolarized. This depolarization travels through the cells of the heart in a steady wave, as first one cell and then the next contracts to maintain the smooth ebb and flow of heart contraction and relaxation. The result is a constant ripple of discharging and recharging, polarized and depolarized cells.

The pattern of polarization is reflected by small corresponding electrical changes on the surface of your skin. Without some form of amplification, this pattern would be very hard to observe. With amplification, however, the pattern can be studied in many ways, from different vantage points around the body's surface.

An electrocardiograph machine is simply a device to receive, amplify, and record the electrical patterns on your skin that echo the patterns in your heart. A set of electrodes are attached to the body with a conductive gel. The most common array of electrodes is a set of ten that attach to the skin on each arm and leg, and in six places on the chest. These receivers pick up the changing electrical charges of your skin and convey them to recording instruments.

The recording instruments are pens that rest on the surface of a roll of graph paper. As the charge is amplified and fed to the penholders, the pens swing, leaving a jagged track on the unrolling paper. By studying each track, and comparing the tracks, doctors can determine an enormous amount of information about how your heart is functioning.

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