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Echocardiogram

What is an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is a safe and painless test used to look at the beating heart. A handheld device, called a transducer, sends high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) through your chest. The sound waves bounce, or echo, off the heart. A computer uses the echoes to create a moving picture of the heart.

When is it used?

An echocardiogram is used to help diagnose heart problems. It can show the size of the heart's chambers, the thickness of the chamber walls, how the chambers and heart valves are working, if there is fluid collecting around the heart, and how well the heart is pumping.

The echocardiogram may show signs of:

  • blood clots in the heart
  • previous heart attacks
  • previous rheumatic fever
  • heart problems you were born with
  • tumors
  • infections or other problems of the heart valves.

An echocardiogram is also helpful for follow-up after surgery to replace a heart valve.

How do I prepare for the test?

For an echocardiogram using a transducer on your chest, no preparation is necessary. If you are having a transesophageal echocardiogram, follow your healthcare provider's instructions. (When you have a transesophageal echocardiogram, a very small transducer on the end of a tube is passed down your throat.)

What happens during the test?

This simple test takes about 45 minutes. You usually lie on an exam table on your side. A gel is put on the skin of your chest to help conduct ultrasound waves from the transducer to your heart. The transducer is connected to a computer with a display screen. As the sound waves pass through the body to the heart, they are reflected by the heart and create echoes. The computer converts the echoes into a picture of the heart. The technologist moves the transducer to several places on your chest until the picture is complete. You may be able to watch the picture while it is being recorded.

The technologist may also ask you to breathe a certain way or hold your breath. In some cases the technologist may inject a small amount of dye through an IV for a better view of the inside of the heart.

An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) might be done at the same time. An EKG measures the electrical activity of your heart.

What happens after the test?

After the test, you can go home and go back to your normal activities.

Your healthcare provider will review the test results and let you know what the picture shows.

What are the benefits?

This test helps your healthcare provider know what heart problems you might have. It can help your provider plan your treatment.

What are the risks or disadvantages of this test?

There is no risk from the ultrasound waves.

If you are very overweight or have a serious lung disease, such as emphysema, it may be hard to get good images of your heart. In this case, you may need a transesophageal echocardiogram or another test.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your provider during office hours if:

  • You have questions about the test or its result.
  • You want to make another appointment.
Written by Donald L. Warkentin, MD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-13
Last reviewed: 2011-04-25
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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