By Alan Macy, BIOPAC Systems, Inc.
When recording ECG, it’s important to consider the impacts of electrode placement and amplifier filters on the measured biopotential. Electrode placement is important because different orientations of biopotential surface electrodes with respect to the heart’s position will result in different signal shapes. As the heart contracts and expands, during the course of pumping blood, a time-varying, voltage signal is propagated over the volume of the heart. This voltage signal conducts to the surface of the body and is detectable between any two points on the body that straddle the heart. The signal can look quite different depending on whether the signal is collected from left hand to right hand or from right hand to left leg. When the ECG signal is recorded far from the heart, electrode placement is not critical to obtain similar-looking ECG waveforms when recording over time. As electrodes are placed increasingly close to the heart, then electrode placement becomes quite specific to recreate similar-looking ECG signals. This is because the body is a volume conductor and the heart is not a point-source of electrical signal activity.
The ECG waveform has been specified to consist of frequency components in the range of 0.05 Hz to 150 Hz, even though the characteristic ECG waveform shape is largely composed of components from 0.05 Hz to 35 Hz. However, even if the ECG’s primary waveshape is preserved, bandwidth limits affect usability of the data. For a high-resolution ECG recording, the signal bandwidth should be maximized. Although the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) standard recommends an ECG bandwidth of 0.05-150 Hz, surface electrodes measurements can show ECG components up to 500 Hz. 
As with any physiological measurement from a subject, the balance lies in attempting to isolate the signal of interest from residual noise sources. In the case of ECG recording, interfering noise is often generated by skeletal muscle that lies in the superposition path defined by electrode placement. This noise (recorded as the electromyogram) can be especially problematic if the subject is intentionally moving during the ECG measurement. Other noise sources include interference resulting from mains-generated displacement currents (50/60 Hz hum).
Depending on the nature of the ECG measurement requirements, filtering methodology can be a helpful ally to reduce the effects of interfering noise sources. The critical aspects of filtering are a function of the filter’s magnitude and phase characteristics. Choice of filter topologies can have a significant effect on the shape of the ECG. Given that AAMI guidelines are primarily concerned with ECG filter flatness from 0.05-150 Hz, typically, second-order (or higher) Butterworth filters are used to define these limits.
The discussion of ECG waveshape is continued in Electrocardiogram Waveshape Pt. II.
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