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Echocardiogram

An echocardiogram uses ultrasound to produce moving, real-time images of your heart. The procedure helps to check the structure of your heart and how well it's functioning.

You will meet the doctor or technician carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

About echocardiogram

An echocardiogram (or echo) uses sound waves (known as ultrasound) to check the structure of your heart and how well it’s working. The procedure involves a doctor or technician moving an ultrasound sensor over your chest to get pictures of your heart.

Echocardiograms can help to check how well your heart is pumping blood and can identify heart defects in adults, young children, newborn babies and unborn babies (fetal echocardiogram).

What are the alternatives to an echocardiogram?

Alternatives to an echocardiogram include the following.

  • Transoesophageal echocardiogram. This is also an echocardiogram, but involves a doctor passing the ultrasound sensor into your oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach).
  • Cardiac MRI scan. MRI is a special technique that uses powerful magnets, radio waves and computers to produce detailed images (or scans) of the inside of your heart.
  • Radionuclide test. In this test, a doctor injects a harmless, radioactive substance into your body. He or she then uses a special camera to take pictures of your heart. The radioactive substance shows up as it travels through your heart and your doctor uses this to assess your heart function and blood flow.

Your doctor will advise you which procedure is most suitable.

Preparing for an echocardiogram

Echocardiograms are carried out in hospital by a cardiologist (a doctor specialising in conditions of the heart) or a sonographer (a technician trained in the procedure).

Your doctor will explain how to prepare for your procedure. For example, if you're having a stress echocardiogram you may be asked not to take beta-blockers or calcium-channel blockers for 48 hours and not to eat for two hours before the test.

What happens during an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram can take 30 to 45 minutes. You will be asked to undress to your waist and lie on your left-hand side. Your doctor or technician will place a clear gel over the left side of your chest. This is to make sure there will be a good, airtight contact between your skin and the sensor.

The sensor is held firmly against your skin and, as it moves across your chest, sends out sound waves and picks up the returning echoes. Pictures of the inside of your heart will be displayed on a screen. These pictures are constantly updated, so the scan can show movement. The test is painless but may feel uncomfortable when the sensor is being moved over your skin.

During the echocardiogram, you may be able to hear loud whooshing sounds. This is the sound of your blood flow and can be heard whether or not there are any abnormalities in your heart.

Your heart rhythm will be also monitored throughout your echocardiogram.

A cardiac physiologist performing an echocardiogram, with a man lying on a treatment table.

                                                          Echocardiogram

Stress echocardiogram

This is when the echocardiogram is done while your heart is under stress. This helps your doctor find out how well your heart copes when it has to work harder. You may be asked to do some exercise (such as walking on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike), or take medicines to make your heart beat faster and harder.

If you have an exercise stress echocardiogram, the exercise will be gentle at first but will get progressively more strenuous. Your doctor may take pictures of your heart while you are exercising or immediately afterwards.

If medicines are used to increase your heart rate, you may be asked to rest for 20 minutes after the test to make sure the effects have completely worn off.

Contrast echocardiogram

This is when a special dye (contrast agent) is injected into your vein during the echocardiogram. The dye helps show your heart more clearly. A contrast echocardiogram can help diagnose any holes in your heart.

What to expect afterwards

The results of your echocardiogram may be discussed with you immediately after the examination. Alternatively, your results may be sent to your doctor who will discuss them with you at your next appointment.

Recovering from an echocardiogram

If you have an echocardiogram as an out-patient procedure, you will be able to return home after the test is completed. You will be able to continue with your day-to-day activities as usual.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with an echocardiogram. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your doctor to explain how these risks apply to you.

Side-effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure. Medicines for stress echocardiograms can sometimes make you feel sick or dizzy.

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure.

  • A standard echocardiogram is a safe procedure. There are no known complications associated with having it.
  • A stress echocardiogram can occasionally cause heart rhythm problems, headache or chest pains.
  • If contrast agent or medicines are used during the echo, there is a small risk of having an allergic reaction.

Speak to your doctor or technician for more information.

 

Produced by Krysta Munford, Bupa Health Information Team, April 2012.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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