An echocardiogram, or “echo,” 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.
What happens when the test is performed?
An echocardiogram can be done in a doctor's office or a hospital. No preparation is necessary for this test. You wear a hospital gown and lie on a table in a darkened room. The technician or doctor places some clear lubricant onto your chest to help the ultrasound sensor slide around easily. Then he or she 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. You may be asked to breathe in a certain way, to hold your breath briefly, or to roll over onto your left side to get better pictures. 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.
This is how your heart will appear on the video screen during your echocardiography.
If your doctor wants to see your heart in action as it works hard, he or she might recommend that you have a variation of the regular echocardiogram. One variation, called an exercise stress echo, will have you pedal a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill while the echocardiogram is done. Another variation, called a pharmacologic stress echo, involves delivering medication intravenously (through a vein) to increase your heart's blood flow before doing the echocardiogram. During both of these tests, your electrocardiogram (ECG) and vital signs are continuously monitored.
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. If you develop symptoms during an exercise or pharmacological stress echo, a provider will be notified immediately. Also the technician will be closely watching your ECG tracing and vital signs for changes that might indicate a problem.
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 for the cardiologist to review later. In this case, you'll probably receive results in several days.