An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to produce live images of your heart. This test allows your doctor to monitor how your heart and its valves are functioning.
An echocardiogram can help spot blood clots in the heart, fluid in the sac around the heart, and problems with the aorta (the main artery connected to the heart).
It’s a key test in determining the health of the heart muscle, especially after a heart attack. It can also reveal heart defects in unborn babies.
An echocardiogram is painless. There are only risks in very rare cases.
Your doctor may order an echocardiogram if you’re showing signs of heart problems. For example, they may want to inspect the heart valves or chambers if you have an irregular heartbeat, or check your heart’s ability to pump. Your doctor might have discovered an abnormality from inconclusive testing or while listening to your heartbeat though a stethoscope.
These are all reasons your doctor would order an echocardiogram.
There are several different types of echocardiograms.
Transthoracic Echocardiography (TTE)
This is the most common type of echocardiography. It’s painless and noninvasive.
A device called a transducer will be placed on your chest over your heart. The transducer sends ultrasound waves through your chest toward your heart. A computer interprets the sound waves as they bounce back to the transducer. This produces the live images that are shown on a monitor.
Transesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE)
If a transthoracic echocardiogram doesn’t produce definitive images, your doctor may recommend a transesophageal echocardiogram. In this procedure, a much smaller transducer is guided through a thin, flexible tube in your mouth and down your throat. Your throat will be numbed to make this procedure easier.
This tube is guided through your esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach). Your doctor can get a better view of any problems with the transducer behind your heart.
Stress echocardiogram uses a traditional transthoracic echocardiogram. However, it’s done after exercise or in tandem with medication to make your heart beat faster. This allows your doctor to test how your heart performs under stress.
A three-dimensional echocardiogram uses either transesophageal or transthoracic echocardiography to create a 3-D image of your heart. This involves multiple images from different angles. It’s used prior to heart valve surgery or to diagnose heart problems in children.
A fetal echocardiography is used on expectant mothers sometime during weeks 18 to 22 of pregnancy. The transducer is placed over the woman’s belly to check the fetus for heart problems. The test is considered safe for an unborn child because it doesn’t use radiation (unlike X-rays).
Echocardiograms are considered very safe. Unlike other imaging techniques such as X-rays, echocardiograms don’t use radiation.
A transthoracic echocardiogram carries no risk. There is a chance for slight discomfort — similar to pulling off a Band-Aid — when the electrodes are removed from your skin.
There’s a rare chance the tube used in a transesophageal echocardiogram may scrape the side of your esophagus and cause irritation. The most common side effect is a sore throat or feeling a bit funny due to the sedative used in the procedure.
The medication or exercise used to get your heart rate up in a stress echocardiogram could temporarily cause an irregular heartbeat. The risk of a serious reaction is reduced because the procedure — including the physical activity and medication — are supervised.
A transthoracic echocardiogram requires no special preparation.
If you undergo a transesophageal echocardiogram, your doctor may instruct you to fast for a few hours before the test. This is to prevent you from vomiting during the test. You also may not be able to drive for a few hours after the test due to the sedatives.
If your doctor has ordered a stress echocardiogram, wear clothes and shoes that are comfortable to exercise in.
Your doctor will review your results after the test. Your test results may reveal abnormalities such as:
- damage to the heart muscle
- heart defects
- heart size
- pumping strength
- valve problems
Your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist (heart specialist) if they’re concerned about the results of your test.
Your doctor may order more tests or physical examinations before they’re able to give you a diagnosis. If you’re diagnosed with a heart condition, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan that works best for you.