What is an Echocardiogram?
One of the important diagnostic tests upon which cardiologists rely on is an echocardiogram, commonly referred to as an “echo” exam. This painless test utilizes ultrasound to create moving images of the heart. Doctors typically suggest the procedure if they suspect a patient has a heart problem.
What is Echocardiography?
An “echo” allows a physician to watch a patient’s heartbeat and pump blood. Sound waves produce moving images that allow cardiologists to identify various types of heart issues.
Cardiologists typically recommend the test when they suspect a problem with a patient’s heart chambers or valves of when cardiac issues are causing symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath. The exam can also detect congenital heart defects before birth.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that a patient might require any of these types of echocardiograms, depending on the information a physician desires:
- Transthoracic echocardiograms are the most common. As ultrasound waves bounce off the various structures of the heart, a computer turns them into images displayed on a monitor.
- Stress echocardiograms occur during stress tests. They allow the physician to view pictures of the heart when it is working hard and beating rapidly. This test is particularly useful for diagnosing coronary heart disease.
- Transesophageal echocardiograms allow visualization of the aorta and other hard-to-see parts of the heart.
- Three-dimensional echocardiograms produce 3D pictures of the heart, detailed images that depict how the organ appears and functions. They are useful for diagnosing children’s cardiac issues and in heart valve surgery.
What Should a Patient Expect from an Echocardiogram?
Most types of echocardiograms require no special patient preparation. An ultrasonographer performs them in a hospital or in the office. However, a transesophageal “echo” requires no eating or drinking for eight hours before the procedure. A cardiologist will let a patient know if a stress “echo” requires any particular preparation.
Echocardiograms are painless procedures that normally last less than one hour. In some cases, a special dye or saline is injected into a vein to get a clearer picture of the heart.
Once they have changed into a gown from the waist up, patients lie on their backs or left sides during the procedure. The staff places electrodes on the chest and performs an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to monitor the heart’s electrical activity.
After applying a gel to help sound waves make it to the heart, the physician or ultrasonographer captures images by moving a device called a transducer across the chest. A computer converts echoes from these sound waves into images on a screen. The staff records images of various parts of the heart are recorded and forwarded them to the cardiologist for further review.