Harvard Health Publications

Echocardiogram

What is the test?

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. An echocardiogram enables a doctor to examine your heart valves, determine the size of your heart, and assess how well it is functioning. The test can estimate how forcefully your heart is pumping blood, and can spot areas of the heart wall that have been injured by a previous heart attack or some other cause.

How do I prepare for the test?

No preparation is necessary.

What happens when the test is performed?

An echocardiogram can be done in a doctor's office or a hospital. You wear a hospital gown and lie on a table. After squirting some clear jelly onto your chest to help the ultrasound sensor slide around easily, a technician or doctor places the sensor (which looks like a microphone) against your skin.

A picture of your heart appears on a video screen. The technician or doctor slides the sensor back and forth on your chest to see different views of your heart. At times the volume from the machine might be turned on, transmitting a whooshing noise. This represents the sound of your heart beating and blood flowing.

If your doctor wants to see your heart in action as it works hard, he or she might recommend that you have a variation on the regular echocardiogram. One variation, called an exercise echo, will have you pedal a stationary bike while the echocardiogram is done. Another variation, called a stress echo, involves having medication injected to increase your heart's blood flow before doing the echocardiogram. During both of these tests, your EKG and vital signs are continuously monitored.

During some echocardiogram tests, a technician will place an IV in your arm or hand and inject saline or saline with very small air bubbles. This allows the test to show blood flow patterns within the heart more clearly.

What risks are there from the test?

There are no risks of a resting echocardiogram.

If you have an exercise echo, you might develop chest pain during the test. Because this is a sign that your heart isn't getting enough oxygen and could be in danger of damage, it's important that you alert the medical staff immediately so that the test can be stopped. Also the technician will be closely watching your EKG tracing and vital signs for changes that might indicate a problem.

Must I do anything special after the test is over?

No.

How long before the result of the test is known?

If a doctor does the test, you might get some results immediately. If a technician performs the test, he or she records the echocardiogram on a videotape. The heart specialist (cardiologist) will review the tape later on. In this case, you'll probably receive results in several days.


Disclaimer: This content should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of a call or visit to a health professional. Use of this content is subject to specific Terms of Use & Medical Disclaimers.

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