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Heart Rate Variability Analysis - A Powerful Health Assessment Tool

Posted Dec 29 2009 5:11pm
For the past decade Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis has gained a significant interest within medical researchers and health oriented professionals. The amount of research papers on HRV published for the past 5-10 years has grown hundreds times. Nowadays it is hard to find any area of human health studies where HRV would not be considered. There is growing number of health conditions where HRV was found helpful in diagnostic process. Besides HRV method is used in general health assessment of healthy subjects. What is the history of HRV? Why did it gain such high interest? What kind of equipment is available now for HRV analysis?

Methods of Heart Rate Variability Analysis. Methods of HRV analysis were conceptualized in 60s of last century. The success in space medicine research has ignited this area of biomedical studies. First manned space flights forced biomedical scientists to develop means to monitor health condition of space crew members. It was impossible to equip spaceships with oversized medical equipment existing at those times. The scientists were forced to design new methods and tools for health assessment which would be as efficient as the existing ones but not requiring to have medical professionals on board to perform data collection and analysis and very compact. Electrocardiograph (ECG) was found as one of the best technologies suitable for this purpose. ECG measures electric activity of the heart. ECG analysis was well-known at that time. However while analyzing long ECG recordings researchers have noticed that heartbeat intervals keep fluctuating beat-by-beat all the time. Initially researchers were trying to filter those fluctuations out to get averaged heart rate values. However later they wondered if there is any physiologically meaningful information in those fluctuations. Thus new area of biomedical research emerged called HRV analysis. In 1996 a special Task Force of the European Society of Cardiology and North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology published first world standards for measurement, analysis, physiological interpretation of HRV and recommendations for its clinical use. After that the amount of HRV research started growing fast.

Heart Rate Variability serves for health conditions detection. Of course the main reason why HRV has become so popular is not just because it is simple to use but its effectiveness for making prognostic conclusions in various health conditions. The scientists have shown that significantly decreased HRV is a strong predictor of sudden cardiac death after heart attack. Besides that HRV can be used for assessment of diabetic autonomic neuropathy. There are many evidences of HRV changes in patients with cardiovascular diseases. Why HRV has become a non-specific marker of development of such different types of health conditions? The answer is because HRV is mainly a reflection of current state of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) function. The ANS controls practically all body’s vital organs and functions. There are no other methods capable of giving such assessment of the ANS function at this time. The ANS is involved in developing many known health conditions. Specific external or internal factors may initially cause some transient forms of failure of the ANS regulation process targeted to specific organ. If these the influence of such factors persists the ANS is not able to adequately regulate the target organ so failure of its function may lead to permanent pathological changes in it. Thus timely and adequate assessment of the autonomic function may help to find early signs of diseases when known symptoms are not manifested yet however adequate measures may help reverting an ongoing health problem.

Digital Heart Rate Variability Analysis. Another reason of growing the amount of HRV research is advancement in computer technologies. At the beginning of HRV era scientists had to literally manually measure heartbeat intervals on rolls of ECG recordings using ruler, paper and pencil then calculate HRV parameters with primitive calculators. Now with modern computers this process is done instantaneously. Gathering an analysis of HRV data using modern computer-based tools has become so simple task so it frees up scientists for more in-depth analysis of this information.

Heart Rate Variability products. For example the Heart Rhythm Scanner 3.0 developed by Biocom Technologies provides researchers with many capabilities including:
  • Measuring HRV data by means of using two types of sensors;
  • ECG and pulse wave (photoplethysmograph)which are equally suitable for gathering data for HRV analysis.
  • Wireless (Bluetooth) option for communication with both types of sensors enables to record data when subject is in remote location or when wired connection is not appropriate.
  • The results of HRV analysis are presented in suitable easy-to-understand numerical and graphical formats.
  • Extended capabilities to export data into various formats help researchers to port data for further scientific analysis or exchange between users.
  • A verbal interpretation of HRV test results is available for healthcare practitioners.

The growing amount of HRV research data lets us believe that scientists will soon come to substantially new level of understanding of regulatory processes in the human body. As a result of this it will be possible to reliably forecast development of many health conditions way earlier than they are detected now. It is more effective to prevent disease rather than treat it. Great potential of HRV analysis enables us to optimistically look into the future with regard to solving this problem.
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