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What Is Echocardiogram?

Echocardiogram, or echo, is a painless test that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. The pictures show the size and shape of your heart. They also show how well your heart's chambers and valves are working.

Echo also can pinpoint areas of heart muscle that aren't contracting well because of poor blood flow or injury from a previous heart attack. A type of echo called Doppler ultrasound shows how well blood flows through your heart's chambers and valves.

Echo can detect possible blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup in the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and problems with the aorta. The aorta is the main artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to your body.

Who Needs Echocardiography?

The doctor may recommend echocardiography (echo) if you have signs or symptoms of heart problems.

For example, shortness of breath and swelling in the legs are possible signs of heart failure. Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can't pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet your body's needs. Echo can show how well your heart is pumping blood.Echo also can help your doctor find the cause of abnormal heart sounds, such as heart murmurs. Heart murmurs are extra or unusual sounds heard during the heartbeat. Some heart murmurs are harmless, while others are signs of heart problems.

The doctor also may use echo to learn about:
The size of your heart. An enlarged heart might be the result of high blood pressure, leaky heart valves, or heart failure. Echo also can detect increased thickness of the ventricles (the heart's lower chambers). Increased thickness may be due to high blood pressure, heart valve disease, or congenital heart defects.
Heart muscles that are weak and aren't pumping well. Damage from a heart attack may cause weak areas of heart muscle. Weakening also might mean that the area isn't getting enough blood supply, a sign of coronary heart disease.

Heart valve problems. Echo can show whether any of your heart valves don't open normally or close tightly.
Problems with your heart's structure. Echo can detect congenital heart defects, such as holes in the heart. Congenital heart defects are structural problems present at birth.
Blood clots or tumors. If you've had a stroke, you may have echo to check for blood clots or tumors that could have caused the stroke.

The doctor also might recommend echo to see how well your heart responds to certain heart treatments, such as those used for heart failure.

What To Expect Before Echocardiography?

No special preparations are needed for most types of echo. You usually can eat, drink, and take any medicines as you normally would. If you're having a stress echo, you may need to take steps to prepare for the stress test. Your doctor will let you know what steps you need to take.

What To Expect During Echocardiography?

Echocardiography (echo) is painless; the test usually takes less than an hour to do.

For most types of echo, you will remove your clothing from the waist up. You will be given a gown to wear during the test. You'll lie on your back or left side on an exam table or stretcher.A doctor or sonographer (a person specially trained to do ultrasounds) will apply gel to your chest. The gel helps the sound waves reach your heart. A wand-like device called a transducer will then be moved around on your chest.The transducer transmits ultrasound waves into your chest. A computer will convert echoes from the sound waves into pictures of your heart on a screen. During the test, the lights in the room will be dimmed so the computer screen is easier to see.

The patient lies on his left side. A sonographer moves the transducer on the patient's chest, while viewing the echo pictures on a computer.The sonographer will record pictures of various parts of your heart. He or she will put the recordings on a computer disc for a cardiologist (heart specialist) to review.During the test, you may be asked to change positions or hold your breath for a short time. This allows the sonographer to get better pictures of your heart.

At times, the sonographer may apply a bit of pressure to your chest with the transducer. You may find this pressure a little uncomfortable, but it helps get the best picture of your heart. You should let the sonographer know if you feel too uncomfortable.

What To Expect After Echocardiography?

You can go back to your normal activities right after having echocardiography (echo).