Health Care

What Is an Echocardiogram?

A doctor listens to a patient's breathing with a stethoscope

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An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to produce live images of your heart. It allows your doctor to monitor how your heart and its valves are working.

An echocardiogram is vital in determining the health of the heart muscle, especially after a heart attack. It can also reveal heart defects or irregularities in unborn babies during a fetal echocardiogram.

You might need an echocardiogram if you’re at risk for heart disease, to monitor your heart valve over time or to track how well any medical treatments are working. We’re here to help you learn more about echocardiograms and how to prepare for them.

Types of Echocardiograms

The type of echocardiogram you have depends on the information your physician is looking for. Rest assured that getting an echocardiogram is painless and the risks are small.

Transthoracic Echocardiogram

In this standard echocardiogram:

  • A technician spreads gel on a device and presses it firmly against your skin, aiming an ultrasound beam through your chest to your heart
  • The device records the sound wave echoes from your heart
  • A computer converts the echoes into moving images on a monitor

If your lungs or ribs block the view, you may need a small amount of an enhancing agent (contrast) injected through an intravenous (IV) line. The contrast will make your heart's structures show up more clearly on a monitor.

Transesophageal Echocardiogram

If your doctor wants more-detailed images or it's difficult to get a clear picture of your heart with a standard echocardiogram, you may need a transesophageal echocardiogram.

In this procedure:

  • Your throat will be numbed, and you'll be given medication to help you relax
  • A flexible tube containing a transducer is guided down your throat and into the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach
  • The transducer records the sound wave echoes from your heart
  • A computer converts the echoes into detailed moving images of your heart, which your doctor can view on a monitor

Doppler Echocardiogram

Sound waves change pitch when they bounce off blood cells moving through your heart and blood vessels. These doppler signals can help your doctor measure the speed and direction of the blood flow in your heart.

Doppler techniques are typically used in transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiograms. Doppler techniques can also be used to check blood flow problems and blood pressure in the arteries of your heart — which traditional ultrasound may not detect.

Stress Echocardiogram

Some heart problems occur only during physical activity. Your doctor might recommend a stress echocardiogram to check for coronary artery problems. However, an echocardiogram can't provide information about any blockages in the heart's arteries.

In a stress echocardiogram:

  • Ultrasound images of your heart are taken before and immediately after you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike
  • If you're unable to exercise, you may get an injection of a medication to make your heart pump as hard as if you were exercising

How to Prepare for an Echocardiogram

For most echocardiograms, you can eat or drink as usual before the test. For some kinds (including a stress echocardiogram), you’ll be asked to fast with no food or drink for 4 to 8 hours beforehand. Follow your doctor’s advice about whether or not to take your usual medications on the day of the test. You’ll change into a hospital gown upon arrival and it’s best to leave valuables at home.

You’ll have the opportunity to ask questions after your doctor explains the procedure to you. There should be no significant discomfort other than a cool feeling and slight pressure from the device. It should take less than an hour.

What Does an Echocardiogram Show?

The results of an echocardiogram can show the following:

  • Abnormal cardiac chamber size
  • Blood clots in the heart
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Heart defects
  • Pressure in the heart
  • Problems with pumping function
  • Stiffness of the heart
  • Valve problems

If there is concern, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist. More tests or physical exams might be needed before an official diagnosis can be made. If you are diagnosed with a heart condition, your doctor will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that considers your whole health.

The Picture of Health

Imaging techniques like echocardiograms are key to detecting, diagnosing and treating your illness or injury. At AdventHealth, we offer a full spectrum of clinical diagnostic and therapeutic medical imaging services from routine X-rays and ultrasounds to advanced MRIs. Visit us here to learn more and to find a location near you.

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