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Echocardiogram

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jan 31, 2023.

Overview

An echocardiogram uses sound waves to create pictures of the heart. This common test can show blood flow through the heart and heart valves. Your health care provider can use the pictures from the test to find heart disease and other heart conditions.

Other names for this test are:

There are different types of echocardiograms. The type you have depends on the reason for the test and your overall health. Some types of echocardiograms be done during exercise or pregnancy.

Echocardiogram

An echocardiogram uses sound waves to show how blood flows through the heart and heart valves. Sensors attached to the chest and sometimes the legs check the heart rhythm during the test. The test can help a health care provider diagnose heart conditions.

Why it's done

An echocardiogram is done to look for heart problems. The test shows how blood moves through the heart chambers and heart valves. Your health care provider may order this test if you have chest pain or shortness of breath.

Types of echocardiograms

There are different types of echocardiograms. The type you have depends on the information your health care provider needs.

Echocardiogram methods

There are several parts to an echocardiogram. They include:

Risks

Echocardiography uses harmless sound waves, called ultrasound. The sound waves pose no known risk to the body. There is no X-ray exposure.

Other risks of an echocardiogram depend on the type of test being done.

If you have a standard transthoracic echocardiogram, you may feel some discomfort when the ultrasound wand pushes against your chest. The firmness is needed to create the best pictures of the heart.

There may be a small risk of a reaction to the contrast dye. Some people get backaches, headaches or rashes. If a reaction occurs, it typically happens right away, while you are still in the test room. Severe allergic reactions are very rare.

If you have a transesophageal echocardiogram, your throat may be sore for a few hours afterward. Rarely, the tube used for this test may scrape the inside of the throat. Other risks of a TEE include:

Medicine given during a stress echocardiogram may temporarily cause a fast or irregular heartbeat, a flushing feeling, low blood pressure or allergic reactions. Serious complications, such as a heart attack, are rare.

How you prepare

How you prepare for an echocardiogram depends on the type being done. Arrange for a ride home if you're having a transesophageal echocardiogram. You can't drive after the test because you usually receive medicine to relax you.

Food and medications

Before your test appointment, ask your health care provider if you can take your medicines as usual. Make sure your provider knows about all the medicines you take, including those bought without a prescription.

You can usually eat or drink as usual before a standard transthoracic echocardiogram.

If you're having a transesophageal echocardiogram, you may need to avoid food and drink for a few hours before the test. Your health care provider gives you details on how to prepare for this test.

What you can expect

An echocardiogram is done in a medical center or a hospital.

You'll usually be asked to remove clothing from your upper body and change into a hospital gown.

When you enter the testing room, a health care provider attaches sticky patches to your chest. Sometimes they are placed on the legs too. The sensors, called electrodes, check your heart rhythm. This test is called an electrocardiogram. It's more commonly called an ECG or EKG.

What to expect during the echocardiogram test depends on the specific type of echocardiogram being done.

Transthoracic echocardiogram

This is the standard type of echocardiogram. It takes pictures of the heart from outside the body.

During a standard echocardiogram:

During the test, you may be asked to breathe in a certain way or to roll onto your left side. If your lungs or ribs block the view, you may be given dye, called contrast, by IV. The contrast helps the heart's structures show up more clearly on the images. You may also be given a saline solution by IV to help check for holes in the heart.

A fetal echocardiogram is done in a similar way as the standard test, except the wand moves over the pregnant person's belly.

Transesophageal echocardiogram

This type of echocardiogram provides more-detailed images of the heart and heart valves. Unlike a standard echocardiogram, this test takes pictures from inside the body.

This test requires medicines called sedatives to relax you. Before the test starts, a care provider inserts an IV into your forearm or hand. The sedatives and other medicines go through this IV. The provider also numbs your throat with a spray or gel. You also receive oxygen. It flows through a face mask or a small tube with two openings that's placed in your nostrils.

During a transesophageal echocardiogram:

A health care provider watches your oxygen level during the test.

Stress echocardiogram

A stress echocardiogram is done the same way as a standard transthoracic echocardiogram except the images are taken before and after exercise. Some heart problems occur only during physical activity.

A stress echocardiogram often involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while an ECG is done.

The provider takes echocardiogram pictures of your heart before and after the exercises. If you can't exercise, you might be given medicines. The medicines help the heart pump like it does during exercise. The pictures are taken before and after you get the medicines.

After the procedure

Most echocardiograms take less than an hour. If you have a transesophageal echocardiogram, you may be watched for a few hours after the test.

After imaging is done, the images will be reviewed by a health care provider. You may be asked to wait in case more imaging is needed.

Most people can go back to their usual daily activities after an echocardiogram.

If your echocardiogram looks OK, no further testing may be needed. If the results are concerning, you may need more tests. If you aren't already seeing a heart specialist, you may be referred to one. This type of health care provider is called a cardiologist.

Results

Information from an echocardiogram may show:

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