Echocardiography (EK-o-kar-de-OG-rah-fee), or echo, is a painless test that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. The pictures show the size and shape of your heart. They also show how well your heart’s chambers and valves are working.
Echo also can pinpoint areas of heart muscle that aren’t contracting well because of poor blood flow or injury from a previous heart attack. A type of echo called Doppler ultrasound shows how well blood flows through your heart’s chambers and valves.
Echo can detect possible blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup in the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and problems with the aorta. The aorta is the main artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to your body.
Doctors also use echo to detect heart problems in infants and children.
Your doctor may recommend echocardiography (echo) if you have signs or symptoms of heart problems.
For example, shortness of breath and swelling in the legs are possible signs of heart failure. Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet your body’s needs. Echo can show how well your heart is pumping blood.
Echo also can help your doctor find the cause of abnormal heart sounds, such as heart murmurs. Heart murmurs are extra or unusual sounds heard during the heartbeat. Some heart murmurs are harmless, while others are signs of heart problems.
Your doctor also may use echo to learn about:
Your doctor also might recommend echo to see how well your heart responds to certain heart treatments, such as those used for heart failure.
There are several types of echocardiography (echo)—all use sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. This is the same technology that allows doctors to see an unborn baby inside a pregnant woman.
Unlike x rays and some other tests, echo doesn’t involve radiation.
Transthoracic (tranz-thor-AS-ik) echo is the most common type of echocardiogram test. It’s painless and noninvasive. “Noninvasive” means that no surgery is done and no instruments are inserted into your body.
This type of echo involves placing a device called a transducer on your chest. The device sends special sound waves, called ultrasound, through your chest wall to your heart. The human ear can’t hear ultrasound waves.
As the ultrasound waves bounce off the structures of your heart, a computer in the echo machine converts them into pictures on a screen.
Stress echo is done as part of a stress test. During a stress test, you exercise or take medicine (given by your doctor) to make your heart work hard and beat fast. A technician will use echo to create pictures of your heart before you exercise and as soon as you finish.
Some heart problems, such as coronary heart disease, are easier to diagnose when the heart is working hard and beating fast.
Your doctor may have a hard time seeing the aorta and other parts of your heart using a standard transthoracic echo. Thus, he or she may recommend transesophageal (tranz-ih-sof-uh-JEE-ul) echo, or TEE.
During this test, the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube. The tube is guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). This allows your doctor to get more detailed pictures of your heart.
Echocardiography (echo) is done in a doctor’s office or a hospital. No special preparations are needed for most types of echo. You usually can eat, drink, and take any medicines as you normally would.
The exception is if you’re having a transesophageal echo. This test usually requires that you don’t eat or drink for 8 hours prior to the test.
If you’re having a stress echo, you may need to take steps to prepare for the stress test. Your doctor will let you know what steps you need to take.
Echocardiography (echo) is painless; the test usually takes less than an hour to do. For some types of echo, your doctor will need to inject saline or a special dye into one of your veins. The substance makes your heart show up more clearly on the echo pictures.
The dye used for echo is different from the dye used during angiography (a test used to examine the body’s blood vessels).
For most types of echo, you will remove your clothing from the waist up. Women will be given a gown to wear during the test. You’ll lie on your back or left side on an exam table or stretcher.
Soft, sticky patches called electrodes will be attached to your chest to allow an EKG (electrocardiogram) to be done. An EKG is a test that records the heart’s electrical activity.
A doctor or sonographer (a person specially trained to do ultrasounds) will apply gel to your chest. The gel helps the sound waves reach your heart. A wand-like device called a transducer will then be moved around on your chest.
The transducer transmits ultrasound waves into your chest. A computer will convert echoes from the sound waves into pictures of your heart on a screen. During the test, the lights in the room will be dimmed so the computer screen is easier to see.
Echocardiography (echo) shows the size, structure, and movement of various parts of your heart. These parts include the heart valves, the septum (the wall separating the right and left heart chambers), and the walls of the heart chambers. Doppler ultrasound shows the movement of blood through your heart.
Your doctor may use echo to:
Echo can detect many heart problems. Some might be minor and pose no risk to you. Others can be signs of serious heart disease or other heart conditions. Your doctor may use echo to learn about:
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