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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Determining Heart Rate from the Electrocardiogram

The term "heart rate" normally refers to the rate of ventricular contractions. However, because there are circumstances in which the atrial and ventricular rates differ (e.g., second and third degree AV block), it is important to be able to determine both atrial and ventricular rates. This is easily done by examining an ECG rhythm strip, which is usually taken from a single lead (e.g., Lead II). In the example below, there are four numbered R waves, each of which is preceded by a P wave. Therefore, the atrial and ventricular rates will be the same because there is a one-to-one correspondence. Atrial rate can be determined by measuring the time intervals between P waves (P-P intervals). Ventricular rate can be determined by measuring the time intervals between the QRS complexes, which is done by looking at the R-R intervals.

electrocardiogram rhythm strip

There are different short-cut methods that can be used to calculate rate, all of which assume a recording speed of 25 mm/sec. One method is to divide 1500 by the number of small squares between two R waves. For example, the rate between beats 1 and 2 in the above tracing is 1500/22, which equals 68 beats/min. Alternatively, one can divide 300 by the number of large squares (red boxes in this diagram), which is 300/4.4 (68 beats/min). Another method, which gives a rough approximation, is the "count off" method. Simply count the number of large squares between R waves with the following rates: 300 - 150 - 100 - 75 - 60. For example, if there are three large boxes between R waves, then the rate is 100 beats/min. One must extrapolate, however, between boxes. Atrial rate can be determined like the ventricular rate, but using the P waves. Remember, if the heart in in sinus rhythm and there is a one-to-one correspondence between P waves and QRS completes, then the atrial rate will be the same as ventricular rate.

In the above examples, the ventricular rate was determined based on the interval between the first two beats. However, it is obvious that the rate would have been faster had it been calculated using beats 2 and 3 (104 beats/min) because of a premature atrial beat, and slower if it had been calculated between beats 3 and 4 (52 beats/min). This illustrates an important point when calculating rate between any given pair of beats. If the rhythm is not regular, it is important to determine a time-averaged rate over a longer interval (e.g., over ten seconds or longer). For example, because the recording time scale is 25 mm/sec, if there are 12.5 beats in 10 seconds, the rate will be 75 beats/min.

Revised 3/11/16

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