What is an echocardiogram?

Sound waves paint image of heart function

If your doctor recommends undergoing an echocardiogram, he or she wants to take a closer look at the size and shape of your heart.

This diagnostic test uses ultrasound waves to draw images of the heart, and your health provider can see an accurate picture of how it’s functioning and whether it’s been damaged.

Echocardiogram colored screen

Echocardiogram screen

There are several kinds of echocardiograms. They include:

Limited or Transthoracic
This is the standard screening test. An ultrasound probe is placed against the chest wall or throat to take images of the heart. It is non-invasive and extremely accurate.

They take an average of 15 minutes to complete and it can be done in the doctor’s office.

“It’s a very painless procedure,” said Dr. Joseph Imsais, ADC cardiologist. “There may be some pushing on the chest, and the technologist may ask you to take deep breaths in or exhale. But it’s a fairly simple procedure.”

If images from a transthoracic echo are not quite precise enough, your doctor may recommend this screening test, which passes a special probe down the esophagus to see the heart. Sometimes the patient is sedated or localized numbing medication is used.

Your cardiologist may order this test to measure the speed and direction of the blood flow through your heart, valves and vessels.

Exercise or stress echocardiograms measure your heart at rest. Then you are asked to move on a treadmill or given stress-inducing medication, and the test is repeated. Your cardiologist then compares the tests to see if you have decreased blood flow to the heart which can indicate coronary artery disease.

This test takes about 45 minutes to complete, and it can be done in the office.

Why echoes are done

Cardiologists use echocardiograms for many reasons.

  • To identify heart conditions
    By examining the size of the heart chambers and the thickness of the heart’s walls, doctors can identify heart failure, hypertension and other disorders.
  • To detect damage
    By looking at how well the heart pumps blood, doctors can see if there has been damage. In patients who have had a heart attack, parts of the heart may not pump as well.
  • To check valve function
    The echo test can see if a valve if a valve is normal, thickened or torn by showing its shape and motion.
  • Other conditions
    The echo can also detect fluid around the heart, blood clots, tumors or abnormal holes between chambers.

“The tests are reviewed by physicians, and once they’re reviewed, we notify the patient about the results,” Dr. Imsais said.

Who would benefit

Dr. Imsais says this test is often recommended for patients with chest pain, shortness of breath, swelling in their legs, and rapid heartbeats.

It may also be ordered for patients with cardiac risk factors. Those include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • History of smoking
  • Early family history of heart disease or vascular disease