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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG)

electrocardiogram durations and intervals

General Description

As the heart undergoes depolarization and repolarization, the electrical currents that are generated spread not only within the heart, but also throughout the body.  This electrical activity generated by the heart can be measured by an array of electrodes placed on the body surface. The recorded tracing is called an electrocardiogram (ECG, or EKG).  A "typical" ECG tracing is shown to the right.  The different waves that comprise the ECG represent the sequence of depolarization and repolarization of the atria and ventricles. The ECG is recorded at a speed of 25 mm/sec, and the voltages are calibrated so that 1 mV = 10 mm in the vertical direction. Therefore, each small 1-mm square represents 0.04 sec (40 msec) in time and 0.1 mV in voltage. Because the recording speed is standardized, one can calculate the heart rate from the intervals between different waves.

P wave

The P wave represents the wave of depolarization that spreads from the SA node throughout the atria, and is usually 0.08 to 0.1 seconds (80-100 ms) in duration.  The brief isoelectric (zero voltage) period after the P wave represents the time in which the impulse is traveling within the AV node (where the conduction velocity is greatly retarded) and the bundle of His. Atrial rate can be calculated by determining the time interval between P waves. Click here to see how atrial rate is calculated.

The period of time from the onset of the P wave to the beginning of the QRS complex is termed the P-R interval, which normally ranges from 0.12 to 0.20 seconds in duration.  This interval represents the time between the onset of atrial depolarization and the onset of ventricular depolarization.  If the P-R interval is >0.2 sec, there is an AV conduction block, which is also termed a first-degree heart block if the impulse is still able to be conducted into the ventricles.

QRS complex

The QRS complex represents ventricular depolarization. Ventricular rate can be calculated by determining the time interval between QRS complexes. Click here to see how ventricular rate is calculated.

The duration of the QRS complex is normally 0.06 to 0.1 seconds.  This relatively short duration indicates that ventricular depolarization normally occurs very rapidly.  If the QRS complex is prolonged (> 0.1 sec), conduction is impaired within the ventricles.  This can occur with bundle branch blocks or whenever a ventricular foci (abnormal pacemaker site) becomes the pacemaker driving the ventricle. Such an ectopic foci nearly always results in impulses being conducted over slower pathways within the heart, thereby increasing the time for depolarization and the duration of the QRS complex.

electrocardiogram QRS nomenclature
The shape of the QRS complex in the above figure is idealized. In fact, the shape changes depending on which recording electrodes are being used. The shape will also change when there is abnormal conduction of electrical impulses within the ventricles. The figure to the right summarizes the nomenclature used to define the different components of the QRS complex.

ST segment

The isoelectric period (ST segment) following the QRS is the time at which the entire ventricle is depolarized and roughly corresponds to the plateau phase of the ventricular action potential.  The ST segment is important in the diagnosis of ventricular ischemia or hypoxia because under those conditions, the ST segment can become either depressed or elevated.

T wave

The T wave represents ventricular repolarization and is longer in duration than depolarization (i.e., conduction of the repolarization wave is slower than the wave of depolarization). Sometimes a small positive U wave may be seen following the T wave (not shown in figure at top of page). This wave represents the last remnants of ventricular repolarization. Inverted or prominent U waves indicates underlying pathology or conditions affecting repolarization.

Q-T interval

The Q-T interval represents the time for both ventricular depolarization and repolarization to occur, and therefore roughly estimates the duration of an average ventricular action potential.  This interval can range from 0.2 to 0.4 seconds depending upon heart rate.  At high heart rates, ventricular action potentials shorten in duration, which decreases the Q-T interval.  Because prolonged Q-T intervals can be diagnostic for susceptibility to certain types of tachyarrhythmias, it is important to determine if a given Q-T interval is excessively long.  In practice, the Q-T interval is expressed as a "corrected Q-T (QTc)" by taking the Q-T interval and dividing it by the square root of the R-R interval (interval between ventricular depolarizations).  This allows an assessment of the Q-T interval that is independent of heart rate.  Normal corrected Q-Tc intervals are less than 0.44 seconds.

There is no distinctly visible wave representing atrial repolarization in the ECG because it occurs during ventricular depolarization.  Because the wave of atrial repolarization is relatively small in amplitude (i.e., has low voltage), it is masked by the much larger ventricular-generated QRS complex.

ECG tracings recorded simultaneous from different electrodes placed on the body produce different characteristic waveforms.  To learn where ECG electrodes are placed, CLICK HERE.

RK Revised 04/06/07

DISCLAIMER: These materials are for educational purposes only, and are not a source of medical decision-making advice.