Friday, June 20, 2008

The Electrocardiogram

When I teach biological physics, we spend at least one class discussing the electrocardiogram (ECG, sometimes called the EKG for the German term Elektrokardiogramm). The 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology covers the ECG in Chapter 7, but students often need additional practice on interpreting the signals from heart arrhythmias. As homework, I require my students to go to the website and play the ECG simulator game. It tests the students' knowledge of ECGs in a fun, interactive way. The same website has units on cardiac anatomy, a cardiac dictionary, and cardiac trivia games.

I have found that a plastic model of the heart is useful for teaching cardiac anatomy. I own a "Danny Smith Heart," which clearly shows all the heart valves, vessels, chambers, and other anatomical features. Unfortunately, these plastic models tend to be expensive. Other good websites about the heart are,, and x.cfm. There is also a good online video that explains the ECG.

The 1924 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the Dutch physiologist Willem Einthoven (1860-1927) "for his discovery of the mechanism of the electrocardiogram." The notation of the P, QRS, and T waves (see Fig. 7.17 of our textbook) was developed by Einthoven, as was his interpretation of the ECG using "Einthoven's triangle" (see Fig. 7.19, and page 188). Einthoven's work is an excellent example of how physics can applied successfully to medicine and biology.

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