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Guide to DIY Heart Rate Monitors & Handheld ECG Monitors (Part I)

Consumer Heart Rate Monitors (HRMs) and Handheld ECG monitors

by Steve S. Ryan, PhD, Updated April 2015

A-Fib patients sometimes want to monitor their heart rate and pulse when exercising or when performing physically demanding activities (i.e., mowing the lawn, climbing stairs, loading and unloading equipment, etc.). A consumer ‘DIY” monitor or Handheld ECG monitor may meet this need.

We’ve sorted through the plethora of products and brands and recommend several products in a range of prices and features.

 Types of Consumer HRS

Consumer, DIY or ‘Sport’ Heart Rate Monitors (HRM) are designed for runners and other recreational athletes to collect helpful data for lifestyle and training (pace, distance, heart rate, pulse, etc.).

Heartbeat sensors are either attached to a chest (or arm) band or built-in to wearable technology and paired with a wireless link to a wrist watch or app-enabled smartphone. HRMS are available from sporting goods stores and online from Amazon.com and other sites.

The Gold Standard brand for HRMs is Polar. (The first EKG accurate wireless heart rate monitor was invented by Polar back in 1977 as a training tool for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski Team.) You can view the extensive range of Polar products at PolarUSA.com. Other companies offering consumer ‘Sport Heart Rate Monitors’ include Timex, Garmin, Acumen, Nike, and Cardiosport plus a host of others if you shop around.

To learn how HRMs work, recording capabilities and how they can help A-Fib patients monitor their heart rate, see our article DIY Heart Rate Monitors: How They Work For A-Fib Patients (Part II).

To help you sort through their extensive offerings, I narrowed down the choices to a few basic and advanced wristwatch models, Bluetooth models, and the newer wearable technology each in an array of price points.

Polar FT4

Polar FT4 with chest band sensor

Wrist Watch Monitors

Consists of two components. These HRMs use sensors attached to a heart rate strap that wraps around the chest, and sends a wireless signal to the wrist unit. Some models connect with compatible gym equipment using GymLink. (More features = higher prices.) A few to consider:

♥  Polar FT4 Heart Rate Monitor Watch (about $45)
♥  Polar RS300X Heart Rate Monitor (about $85)
♥  Polar FT60 Fitness Heart Rate Monitor Watch ($100-$110)
♥  Polar M400 GPS Sports Watch & Activity Tracker (about $150-$350)

GObeat bluetooth

GObeat Bluetooth HRM for use with Smartphones

Bluetooth App-Enabled Monitors for Smartphones

Smartphones are now ubiquitous. For many, their smartphone is an essential part of their standard gear. So, it’s no wonder that a smartphone can replace the wrist watch monitor. Today, you can use Bluetooth technology to send the signal from your heart rate chest strap to an app-enabled smartphone. Here are a couple to consider:

♥  Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor (about $65)
♥  60beat BLUE Heart Rate Monitor for iPhone and most newer Androids (about $35)
♥  Jarv Premium Bluetooth® 4.0 Smart Heart Rate Monitor for Android Devices (about $28)

Bandless Sensors

A replacement for the chest strap for those who find a chest strap uncomfortable or chafing, “wearable technology” offers new options.

Wearable technology

Wearable technology

With these workout clothes, sensors are built in—to a women’s jogging bra or men’s t-shirt (there are also HRM caps, headbands and visors). For example:

♥  Weartech Men’s Gow Smart Sports T-Shirt (Intergrated Cardiac Sensors) ($59-$79)
♥  Weartech Women’s Gow Smart Sports Bra (Intergrated Cardiac Sensors) ($39-79)
♥  Polar Cardio Sports Bra  (about $49)

Note: these items replace the chest band only. Unless sold as a set, you still need a Heart Rate monitor to snap on to the front of the garment such as the
♥   GOW Bluetooth 4.0 Heart Rate Monitor (about $40)
and you will need something to receive the signal—a wrist watch monitor or app-enabled smartphone.

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 Types of Handheld ECG Monitors

See “Comparison of handheld, 1-lead/channel ECG / EKG recorders” by James W. Grier, for an extremely detailed report of 14 Handheld ECG Monitors

This category of consumer monitors has been growing of late with some models having only limited track records. Going beyond just monitoring your heart rate, these units capture data and display it as an ECG (EKG) in real time. (Some units in this category require a doctor’s prescription.)

With prices ranging from $129 to $500 you need to consider size (portability) and ease of use compared to price. Again, I’ve selected a few handheld ECG monitors from the plethora of choices.

AliveCor Heart Monitor by AliveCor

Left: AliveCor snap-on unit (3rd generation); Right: AliveECG app on smartphone screen

Excerpt from Patient Review: AliveCor Heart Monitor for SmartPhones by Frances Koepnick:

FDA-cleared for detection of atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), the AliveCor Heart Monitor when combined with its AliveECG App provides a 30-second, one lead electrocardiogram (ECG). In addition to an ECG, this monitor also determines heart rate in beats per minute (BPM).

This easy-to-use device attaches to iPhones (models 4 thru 6) by means of a snap-on phone case. It is also available for some compatible smartphones and mobile devices other than iPhones.

AliveCor ECG reading displayed on smartphone screen

AliveCor ECG reading displayed on smartphone screen

An ECG reading is obtained by holding the iPhone with both hands and placing at least 1 finger from each hand on the electrodes embedded into the back of the phone case. Your data is accessible through the AliveECG app. it’s also stored on AliveCor secure, encrypted servers, so you can view them anywhere and share them with your doctor.

For more specifics on the AliveCor AC-009-UA-A, continue reading our February 2015 report Patient Review: AliveCor Heart Monitor for SmartPhones by Frances Koepnick.

Note: Be sure to get the newest model—the 3rd generation. (Doctor prescription no longer required.) About $75.

The HeartCheck™ PEN handheld ECG device from CardioComm Solutions

HeartCheck - unlock view 400 pix wide at 96 res

HeartCheck Pen

The HeartCheck™ PEN handheld ECG device is the only device of its kind cleared by the FDA for consumer use. No prescripton required. (A second device, the HeartCheck™ ECG Handheld Monitor does require a prescription to order.)

The pocket-sized PEN allows you to take heart readings from anywhere, the moment symptoms appear. Then using the USB cable provided, connect the device to your PC and run ‘GEMS™ Home’ program to upload your heart rhythm files containing your ECGs and send it to a physician or ECG Coordinating Center (for a fee).

There’s a good review of the Heart Check pen by  over at LivingWithAtrialFibrillation.com (posted Sept. 2013). Robert goes into great detail about how to “unlock” your device so you can see the actual reading, the costs of reports (the first one is free), and the details about how all this works. There’s even a $20 off discount code if you order from the manufacturer’s website.

There are also user videos at: HeartCheck™ ECG PEN Tips and Common Errors

Keep in mind that the HeartCheck™ PEN reports aren’t meant to be used for diagnosis. Reviews on Amazon.com are mixed, but it may work for you. Read one or both of the reviews mentioned above. About $259.

Handheld ECG Monitor CMS-80A from FaceLake (or Contec Medical Systems)

Facelake Hand-Held Single Channel ECG, ECG 80A Link

Facelake Hand-Held ECG 80A

Note: Read about how Tom Burt used the CMS-80A in his Personal Experience story. He writes, “This came in very handy as a way to inform my EP when I did get out of rhythm. This was done by faxing him a strip of the printout.”

The Contec CMS-80A is a single channel, 12 lead monitor which can provide data via one of three ways: on the unit display, via the thermal printer internal to the unit or via a USB connection to a PC. The printout from the unit offers the easiest and most accurate means to view lead output. While you can view lead output on the display, you will find that it is not to the same level of detail as the printout.

Like most normal ECG monitors, 10 electrodes are attached to the body as follows: 6 suction cup leads to the chest and 4 alligator clip leads to the arms and legs. The unit does not rely on the normal press-on style contacts but rather takes a simpler approach with its reusable contacts. Personally, I [Ed Webb] wasn’t too impressed with the suction cup style contacts as they feel funny and leave a mark as if you had been attacked by an octopus. But they seemed to do the job. The alligator clips, while funky, were quick and easy to attach.

Facelake Hand-Held Single Channel ECG, ECG 80A Link

Thermal paper in Facelake Hand-Held Single Channel ECG, ECG 80A – link

The waveforms presented are not what you would expect from an ECG in your cardiologist’s office, but they can provide the simple basics to make a quick determination whether you are in A-Fib. In particular, by examining the output from Lead II, or perhaps Lead aVF, you can quickly observe the absence of a P wave—one sign that you may be in A-Fib. Additionally, examining R-R intervals and whether they are uniformly spaced can be another means to aid in that determination.

From a practical perspective, it could be that you choose to only attach the alligator leads to your arms and legs and forego using the chest leads. You will obviously not have the data from the chest leads (V1 to V6), but that information may not be needed for A-Fib purposes.

Thermal printout from the Handheld ECG Monitor CMS-80A ECG

Note: This unit does not require a prescription from your doctor. For more info and to see what the display looks like, visit the Contec product information page. The CMS-80A (ECG-80A) can be purchased directly from Facelake.com and other locations online ($299-$380).

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 Remote Smart Monitors

MyPulse Provides Email or Text Message Alerts

Are you worried about a relative in A-Fib whom you can’t be with all the time? There is a long range heart monitor your relative can use which will transmit to you if he/she goes into A-Fib or exceeds a normal heart rate.

MyPulse by Smart Monitors link

MyPulse (home model) by Smart Monitors

If you have a need to monitor a relative’s or friend’s heart rate or want to know if your relative or friend has gone into A-Fib, MyPulse by Smart Monitors, Inc. has a solution for you. (Prices range from  $149 – $495.) This is a practical alternative to the expense of a medical monitoring service if you are just interested in simple heart rate data. Obviously, if there are medical concerns relative to the heart arrhythmia, you should find an appropriate medical monitoring solution in concert with the patient’s cardiologist. But if you are looking for an alternative to a medical service, read on.

Most heart rate monitors rely on a chest strap which transmits heart rate data to a wristwatch, bike computer or even smart phone worn or carried by the individual. The MyPulse Long Range Monitor is no different, but instead of the watch to read the data, it has a small Repeater device which is carried by the individual (or located within 3’ of the person wearing the chest strap). The Repeater transmits the data to a Receiver which is connected to a PC/notebook via a USB port.

The combination of Repeater/Receiver gives the wearer a practical range of throughout the house (the kind of range you would expect to see on a Wi-Fi network for instance) and up to 1000’ if the Receiver has an unobstructed view of the Repeater. The MyPulse application runs on the PC and provides a graphic display of real time heart rate data.

Bluetooth mid range/global range monitor

This is the cool part: the software can be configured to provide alerts via email or text message to multiple recipients (such as a caregiver) if a preset limit is exceeded (such as might occur if the wearer goes into A-Fib). For you more tech savvy people, if you want to run a PC mirror app on your smart phone, you can view the real time heart rate data at anytime, anywhere, and not have to worry about waiting for an alert if a limit is exceeded.

All in all, this is a remote heart rate monitor solution that provides a low cost alternative to a medical monitoring service if you and your cardiologist determine you don’t need such a service. Check out the MyPulse by Smart Monitor, Inc. on their website and from Amazon.com (using our portal link).

March 2015 Update: Additional MyPulse solutions include Bluetooth models: Bluetooth mobilePlus edition monitor, $149 and Advanced home edition bluetooth mid range/global range monitor. $299.

 In-Depth Report Of ECG Monitors

Report: Comparison of Handheld, 1-lead/Channel ECG/EKG Recorders

I’m pleased to share a great online resource for anyone considering one of the newer hand-held ECG monitors. “Comparison of handheld, 1-lead/channel ECG / EKG recorders” by James W. Grier, Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences, North Dakota State University. This report is extremely detailed and extensive (and was last updated January 26, 2015).

He tests and compares 14 units, includes multiple photos of each step of testing and multiple print outs of the results. It’s the most thorough report on the topic you will find anywhere.

Go to http://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~grier/Comparison-handheld-ECG-EKG.html

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Return to Index of Articles: Diagnostic Testing

Last updated: Wednesday, August 24, 2016

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