Echocardiogram or ECG is a diagnostic procedure to evaluate the structure and function of the heart. The test uses high-pitched sound waves that are harmless and painless to the human body.
During the procedure, the high-pitched sound waves are directed at the heart with a device called a transducer. Echoes are produced as the sound waves reflect off the various parts of the heart. The transducer picks up these echoes and relays them to a computer which processes the information to create moving pictures of the heart which are viewable on a monitor.
There are different types of echocardiography:
Transthoracic echocardiography (TTE): This is the most common type of test performed in which the transducer is moved to different locations on the chest and upper abdomen.
Stress echocardiography: This is performed before and after subjecting the heart to stress from either exercise or medication to make the heart pump faster. It is usually done to look for decreased blood flow to the heart.
Doppler echocardiography: This test evaluates how blood flows through the heart chambers, valves and blood vessels.
Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE): In this procedure, the transducer probe is passed down the esophagus. The sound waves produced do not have to pass through the lungs and bones of the chest wall and as a result the echocardiograms obtained are much clearer.
Your doctor may recommend an echocardiogram to investigate:
Chest pain or angina.
Difficulty breathing or dyspnea.
Abnormal heart sounds such as murmurs and clicks.
An echocardiogram shows the function of the heart valves and the size and shape of the heart chambers. It can help diagnose various heart diseases such as atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure and valvular heart disease.
An echocardiogram can be performed in a physician’s office or in the hospital. The procedure is specific for each type.
During transthoracic echocardiography you will lie on your back or on your left side on a table or bed. Small adhesive electrodes are attached to the chest. A small quantity of gel is applied on your chest and upper abdomen and the transducer is glided over the gelled area to obtain different views of the heart.
During stress echocardiography, regular echocardiography is first performed. You are then asked to walk on a treadmill or pedal on an exercise bike for a specific amount of time before repeating the test. For those who cannot tolerate a stress test for various reasons a medicine may be injected to accelerate heart rhythm.
During Doppler echocardiography, sound waves that reflect off blood flowing through the heart and vessels are picked up by the transducer and processed into black and white or color images that give information about the direction and speed of blood flow.
For a transesophageal echocardiography a local anesthetic is applied to the throat and the transducer is passed down the throat and esophagus until it is close to the heart where accurate images can be obtained. Sedatives are administered to keep you comfortable.
Risks and complications.
An echocardiogram is generally a safe test but as with any procedure complications may occur and can include the following depending on the type of test performed.
Transthoracic echocardiogram: Mild pain or discomfort in the chest due to application and pressure of the transducer.
Stress echocardiogram may cause shortness of breath, dizziness, irregular heartbeats, and low blood pressure.
Transesophageal echocardiogram may cause nausea, discomfort in the mouth and throat, slow heartbeat or minor bleeding in the esophagus from trauma by the transducer.
Echocardiogram is a diagnostic test that provides information about the structure and function of your heart. The test is usually non-invasive with minimal complications.