Electrocardiograms (ECGs) are performed by humans, and thus are subject to human error. An underappreciated source of electrocardiographic abnormality is electrode misconnection, both limb and precordial, and improper placement, which is principally an issue with the precordial electrodes due to anatomic variation. Patterns of abnormality exist; recognition allows the emergency physician to avoid mistaking the resulting electrocardiographic findings for true pathology.
The purpose of this clinical review is to describe the patterns of electrocardiographic electrode reversal, misplacement, and artifact and thus make them recognizable to the Emergency Physician.
Common limb electrode reversals feature distinctive patterns manifesting as unexpected morphologic and frontal plane axis changes in the QRS complexes in the limb and augmented leads. Precordial electrode misplacement (improper positioning of the electrodes on the chest) is common and may mimic a pseudoinfarction pattern, or ST-segment/T-wave changes, which must be recognized as the result of the misplacement rather than true cardiac ischemia. Precordial electrode reversal should be suspected when the normal R/S wave amplitude transition is violated. Electrocardiographic artifact must be distinguished from dysrhythmia to avoid a potentially hazardous progression to unnecessary diagnostics and therapeutics.
The hallmarks of electrode misconnection, misplacement, and electrocardiographic artifact can be easily mastered by the Emergency Physician; recognition of these findings can positively impact patient care by avoiding unnecessary intervention secondary to misattribution of findings on the 12-lead ECG to cardiac pathology.
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