First off, the leads are organized even worse than the QWERTY keyboard. Inferior leads are the left of anterior, the lateral leads are in two different places, and aVR sits there all by itself, like a chump.
Then there are all the depressions and elevations, T waves flipping around, ischemia vs infarct. And then someone shows you how to pick up on a posterior MI by flipping the paper over. Madness, I tell you.
In particular, identifying a STEMI can be difficult, even if ST segment elevation is clearly seen. For example, the following ECGs all show ST segment elevation, but...
|1. Not a STEMI|
|2. Not a STEMI either|
|4. Bingo - Occlusion of the proximal LAD|
Is there a simpler way to achieve ECG excellence? Some short-cut to Jedi-level ECG mastery other than slogging through hundreds of tracings?
|Perhaps a training montage?|
But there are a few different ways to develop pattern recognition, and switching up the methods can put things in perspective. Hartman and colleagues have helped the novice ECG student tremendously with a new, focused approach to ECG interpretation. While this does not replace experience, practice, and feedback on interpretations, it's a good alternative way to tackle ECGs.
|Abstract. If you want a pdf, message me at Facebook.|
The rule has 4 steps, and we'll tackle them in that order
1. Is there ST elevation in at least 2 related leads?
The first rule specifies a minimum amount of elevation: 1-2 mm in two anatomically related leads.
It doesn't take long before a paramedic student identifies their first patient with ST elevation. Okay, granted, it's usually not an actual STEMI that they find, since the majority of ST elevation found in the ED or by EMS is not a STEMI. Typically, ST elevation will be due to any number of "mimics," such as left bundle branch block (LBBB), left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH), early repolarization (ER), as well as a number of other conditions. Surprisingly, if you look at all the patients who come into the ED with ST elevation, only about 1 in 7 patients have a true STEMI!
On the other hand, if you don't have some ST elevation, the patient probably doesn't have a STEMI. (Yeah, we're going to miss a true posterior or a proximal left main. This rule is for the novice reader, okay?)
|No ST elevation, so not a STEMI.|
2. Is the QRS a normal height?
The heart, over a period of years, responds to hypertension by bulking up and adding muscle mass. This process results in LVH, which, in the long run, isn't good. It shows up on the ECG as deep S-waves in V1 and V2, and high R-waves in V5 and V6.
In the short term, though, it mainly serves to distract us, as it can produce ECG findings that can look a lot like a STEMI. If we look at ECG #1 above, we see ST elevations in leads V2 and V3. Could these represent a STEMI?
Likely no, for several reasons. Now, a lot of the reasons involve interpretation of subtle, qualitative signs - the morphology of the ST segments and T waves, "notching" of the J-point, reciprocal changes, etc. it just doesn't "look" like a STEMI, but you need to read hundreds of ECGs to feel comfortable with those.
It is far simpler to count the big boxes. Rule #2 boils down 3 sub-steps:
- First, look at the S-waves in V1 and V2. Pick the deepest one, and count the big boxes.
- Next, look at the R-waves in V5 and V6. Pick the highest one, and count the big boxes.
- Last, add those two numbers. If it is over 7 big boxes, the ST elevation is probably due to LVH
So, about 40 mm, or 8 big boxes, so likely not a STEMI.
3. Is the QRS a normal width?
Rule #3 is simple - If the QRS is over 0.12 seconds long, don't call a STEMI.
Probably the most common cause of dramatic ST elevation is the LBBB, as in ECG #3 above. You can also see the same pattern if the the patient has a pacemaker.
Now, the experienced and sophisticated paramedic knows that there is a way to interpret the LBBB for signs of STEMI, but even the "simplified" rules for determining STEMI in LBBB are somewhat complicated. Many paramedics are familiar with the rule, but the new paramedic shouldn't be expected to make this call. If the patient has a pacemaker, it's even more unreliable to interpret the ECG.
4. Is there ST depression in at least 1 lead?
Rule #4 - if there is no ST depression, do not call a STEMI.
Most students have learned that you should look for reciprocal ST depression in a STEMI. Unfortunately, because of the non-intuitive, non-anatomic way that the ECG is arranged, it isn't clear which leads are "opposite" each other. And the patterns of depression can vary a lot, depending on which coronary artery is occluded. For example, an "inferior" STEMI may or may not have depressions in I and aVL; it depend on whether the culprit artery is the RCA or the obtuse marginal.
A much simpler criterion for reciprocal depression is any ST depression on the ECG. This would eliminate, for example, ECG #2 above. Although the computer interpretation was STEMI, it is a classic example of early repolarization, or possibly pericarditis (less likely, as the ECG did not evolve). Another example from my ED is this ECG:
|27 y.o., prior dx of pericarditis|
Applying the rule
Let's take another look at ECG #4:
Okay, going through the rules:
- Rule #1 - Over 1 mm of ST elevation is seen in both V1 and V2, which are anatomically contiguous.
- Rule #2 - The S-wave in V1 is about 1 big box deep, while the R-wave in V5 is 3 big boxes high. That's a total of 4, so the QRS height is normal.
- Rule #3 - The QRS looks narrow, about 0.100 seconds wide.
- Rule #4 - There are ST depressions in the lateral leads, most notably in V5.
The Bottom Line
This elegant method of ECG interpretation, although intended for the student, can be very useful for the experienced paramedic as well.