An echocardiogram, commonly referred to as an Echo, is a non-invasive procedure to evaluate the heart. It is a type of ultrasound test that uses sound waves sent through a device called a transducer. The transducer creates and then picks up the sound waves as they bounce off of the different parts of your heart. These echoes are turned into moving pictures and still frames of your heart that can be seen on a video screen.
The moving and still images are measured to assess the heart wall motion and overall pumping function which is called the ejection fraction. It is also used to detect the structure of the four heart valves and the velocity of blood flow through the chambers, valves and blood vessels.
This important test can catch problems early and help the doctor develop a treatment plan to reduce the chance of heart attacks and strokes. Future echoes can be compared to see if changes have taken place, or even if the patient has experienced a heart attack.
Echoes are stored in a digital archive and in the patient's chart for future reference.
Why It's Done
Your doctor may suggest an echocardiogram to:
Check for problems with the valves or chambers of your heart
Check if heart problems are the cause of symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain
Detect congenital heart defects before birth (fetal echocardiogram)
The type of echocardiogram you have depends on the information your doctor needs.
Sound waves change pitch when they bounce off blood cells moving through your heart and blood vessels. These changes (Doppler signals) can help your doctor measure the speed and direction of the blood flow in your heart.
Doppler techniques are generally 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 might not detect.
The blood flow shown on the monitor is colorized to help your doctor pinpoint any problems.
No special preparations are necessary for a standard transthoracic echocardiogram. You can eat, drink and take medications as you normally would.
What you can expect during the procedure
An echocardiogram can be done in the doctor's office or a hospital.
For a standard transthoracic echocardiogram:
You'll undress from the waist up and lie on an examination table or bed.
The technician will attach sticky patches (electrodes) to your body to help detect and conduct your heart's electrical currents.
The technician will also apply a gel to the transducer that improves the conduction of sound waves.
The technician will move the transducer back and forth over your chest to record images of sound-wave echoes from your heart. You may hear a pulsing "whoosh," which is the ultrasound recording the blood flowing through your heart.
You may be asked to breathe in a certain way or to roll onto your left side.
Most echocardiograms take less than an hour.
After the procedure
Most people can resume their normal daily activities after an echocardiogram.
If your echocardiogram is normal, no further testing may be needed. If the results are concerning, you may be referred to a doctor trained in heart conditions (cardiologist) for more tests.
Information from the echocardiogram may show:
Changes in your heart size. Weakened or damaged heart valves, high blood pressure or other diseases can cause the chambers of your heart to enlarge or the walls of your heart to be abnormally thickened.
Pumping strength. The measurements obtained from an echocardiogram include the percentage of blood that's pumped out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat (ejection fraction) and the volume of blood pumped by the heart in one minute (cardiac output). A heart that isn't pumping enough blood to meet your body's needs can lead to symptoms of heart failure.
Damage to the heart muscle. An echocardiogram helps your doctor determine whether all parts of the heart wall are contributing normally to your heart's pumping activity. Areas of heart wall that move weakly may have been damaged during a heart attack, or be receiving too little oxygen.
Valve problems. An echocardiogram can help your doctor determine if your heart valves open wide enough for adequate blood flow or close fully to prevent blood leakage.
Heart defects. An echocardiogram can show problems with the heart chambers, abnormal connections between the heart and major blood vessels, and complex heart defects that are present at birth.