An echocardiogram uses sound waves to produce images of your heart. This common test allows your doctor to see your heart beating and pumping blood. Your doctor can use the images from an echocardiogram to identify heart disease.
Depending on what information your doctor needs, you may have one of several types of echocardiograms. Each type of echocardiogram involves few, if any, risks.
Your doctor may suggest an echocardiogram to:
The type of echocardiogram you have depends on the information your doctor needs.
In this standard type of echocardiogram:
If your lungs or ribs block the view, you may need a small amount of an enhancing agent injected through an intravenous (IV) line. The enhancing agent, which is generally safe and well tolerated, will make your heart's structures show up more clearly on a monitor.
If your doctor wants more-detailed images or it's difficult to get a clear picture of your heart with a standard echocardiogram, your doctor may recommend a transesophageal echocardiogram.
In this procedure:
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.
Some heart problems — particularly those involving the arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle (coronary arteries) — 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:
No risks are involved in a standard transthoracic echocardiogram. You may feel some discomfort from the transducer being held very firmly against your chest. The firmness is necessary to produce the best images of your heart.
If you have a transesophageal echocardiogram, your throat may be sore for a few hours afterward. Rarely, the tube may scrape the inside of your throat. Your oxygen level will be monitored during the exam to check for any breathing problems caused by sedation medication.
During a stress echocardiogram, exercise or medication — not the echocardiogram itself — may temporarily cause an irregular heartbeat. Serious complications, such as a heart attack, are rare.
No special preparations are necessary for a standard transthoracic echocardiogram. You can eat, drink and take medications as you normally would.
If you're having a transesophageal echocardiogram, your doctor will ask you not to eat for several hours beforehand.
If you're having a transesophageal echocardiogram, you won't be able to drive afterward because of the medication you'll likely receive. Be sure to arrange for a ride home.
An echocardiogram can be done in the doctor's office or a hospital.
For a standard transthoracic echocardiogram:
If you have a transesophageal echocardiogram:
Most echocardiograms take less than an hour. If you have a transesophageal echocardiogram, you may be watched for a few hours at the doctor's office or hospital after the test.
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: