Apple recently released its Series 4 Watch and everyone is talking about the new heart monitor feature—the electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). While the app isn’t available yet, the hardware is in place, and it promises to be one of the Apple Watch’s most compelling new features. 

Your Heartbeat and What Can Go Wrong

To understand how an EKG works, we have to look at how the heart beats.

The Human heart is a two-stage pump, divided into two sides. Each side has an atrium at the top and a ventricle at the bottom. The muscles surrounding these two chambers are triggered by two nodes: the sinoatrial (SA) node and the atrioventricular (AV) node. 

The SA node is the body’s natural pacemaker. This nerve cluster depolarizes and emits an electrical charge, starting the heartbeat. This causes the atrium muscle to contract, pushing blood down into the ventricle. The AV node acts as a delay circuit, pausing until the ventricle is full. Then it depolarizes and the ventricle contracts, pushing blood out into the body.

After the cycle is complete, the nodes repolarize, stopping the nerve impulse. If you think of neurons as tiny batteries, depolarization is like turning on a switch and allowing current to flow. Repolarization turns off that flow, stopping the signal the nerve is sending. (Nerves are ionized, and depolarization lets the nerve membrane pass electrons.)

The normal operation of this cycle is known as sinus rhythm, and you can see it in the EKG strip below. (Also, according to the patient who supplied these strips, this strip is actually upside down, due to a condition called a Right Bundle Branch Block.)

Normal sinus rhythm in a patient with Right Bundle Branch Block.

When the electrical operation of the heart gets out of sync, we call this Atrial Fibrillation (also AFib or AF). Variations of Atrial Fibrillation are the things a single-lead EKG like the one in the new Apple Watch Series 4 can detect. The strips on this page show various events associated with Atrial Fibrillation.

Ventricular Premature Beats

Enter the Electrocardiogram

The Electrocardiogram (EKG) is the first tool a doctor will use to diagnose or rule out a heart attack in the event of chest pain. The EKG is an electrical meter and recording device that can see the electrical signals generated by the SA and AV nodes in the heart.

A multi-lead EKG can detect the progress of a heartbeat in several directions; it can follow the heartbeat up and down, side to side, and front to back. By watching differences in timing, a doctor can diagnose more conditions, including a heart attack. Because the Apple Watch only has one lead, it can’t diagnose heart attacks due to an inadequate blood supply, structural defects, or other conditions that may involve more subtle problems with the nerves and nodes in the heart.

EKG diagram, courtesy of Wikipedia

You’ve probably seen the classic EKG waveform on television. That pattern has several different parts, and the width, height, and shape of each part tell the story of your heart’s beat.

Starting on the left, the first bump on the waveform is the P wave. This is the start of your heartbeat, where the SA node is depolarizing. The time span between the beginning and end of the P wave is the PQ segment. This is the delay before the ventricle pumps. Variations in the P wave can tell about things like enlarged atria, atrial fibrillation, and nerve problems.

The dip at Q is the AV node depolarizing. This seems small in comparison to the R wave, as the nerve impulse passes through the ventricle. The dip at S (if you guessed “S wave,” you’re right) is the AV node repolarizing.

Q, R, and S together are the QRS complex. They tell the story of the ventricle’s part of the heartbeat. Like the P wave, the QRS complex can show additional nerve problems.

Finally, the T wave shows the nodes repolarizing. This allows the heart muscles to relax, drawing blood into the heart.

Arrhythmia. Notice the random pattern, especially near the right.

What Does the Apple Watch Do (and What Can’t It Do)?

Like my friend’s home heart monitor, the Apple Watch’s EKG is a single lead device. This means it has two connections to the body: one on the back of the watch that touches your wrist and one on the crown that you touch with the finger of your other hand. Theoretically, the watch can do anything any other single lead EKG can do. The difference is that most of the medical monitoring devices require monthly payments for medical monitoring and reporting.

Looking at the various graphs scattered throughout this article, you can see some examples of irregular heartbeats. These were recorded by an EMAY portable ECG/EKG device, which is an inexpensive home monitoring device. Like the Apple Watch, this is a single lead EKG. Unlike the watch, the EMAY device is meant to either be held in both hands or pressed up against the chest. 

VPB Couple event

The watch can also measure your pulse rate. Your pulse and recovery rate (how fast your pulse slows after exercise) can be indicators of your cardiovascular health and overall fitness levels. The watch can also alert you if your pulse is too high during times you’re not moving; the watch is uniquely suited to this task, with its built-in motion sensors.

While these devices are powerful, there are things they cannot do. The Apple Watch is not certified for medical monitoring, and at this point shouldn’t be used in place of a medical device for patients diagnosed with heart disease. However, more information is almost always a good thing, and being able to detect atrial fibrillation can save lives and improve the quality of life for patients who didn’t even know they had heart disease. 

The app should be available “later this year,” according to Apple. In the meantime, check out the links below for more reading on your heart and how the electrocardiogram works.

More Information

There’s a huge amount of information on the web about cardiac health and diagnosis. Here are a few resources I used:

Questions? Comments?

Please share your stories, experience, or advice in the Disqus comments below. 

Finally, remember to take care of your heart. We only get the one.

Image Credit: AiVectors/Shutterstock

Tom P. Wilson Tom P. Wilson
Tom is a professional software engineer, having written software for everything for several different industries, including law enforcement and banking. He also dabbles in video production and live sound production.
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