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The Echocardiogram Procedure

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 8/6/2011

If your physician suspects that your heart’s ability to pump blood is compromised for some reason, he or she may order an echocardiogram to take a closer look at how well your heart is working.

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    What is an Echocardiogram?

    An electrocardiogram is essentially an ultrasound which is used to study the heart.

    The echocardiogram is a diagnostic procedure in which high frequency sound waves are used to review the function of the heart. The ECG is most often used to examine the regularity and speed of heartbeats, the size of the heart’s chambers, and whether the heart muscle has been damaged.

    This procedure involves the use of a probe which is placed on the body and used to record echo sound waves from the heart. These are used to produce an image which can be interpreted by a doctor.

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    How is an Echocardiogram Done?

    During an echocardiogram, a device called a transducer is pressed against the skin of the chest. The transducer is a small unit which detects the sound wave echoes that are generated by the heart. The transducer converts the echoes into electrical impulses, and the electrical impulses are converted by echocardiography equipment into images of the heart. The images can be viewed on a screen in real time, and "snapshots" are also taken for later review by your doctor.

    Usually this test takes around thirty minutes to complete. During this time the technician will the transducer over the chest to obtain multiple images.

    Often an electrocardiogram is performed at the same time. In this procedure information about the electrical activity of the heart is recorded. Taken together the electrocardiogram and echocardiogram can provide a great deal of information about the health of the heart.

    There are four main types of echocardiogram:

    • The transthoracic echocardiogram is the standard type as described above.
    • In a transesophageal echocardiogram, a transducer is inserted down the throat to access a more detailed view of heart function. This option is usually used if the transthoracic echocardiogram results are unclear. Obesity, as well as conditions such as congestive obstructive pulmonary disease, can sometimes cause such unclear results as these sometimes prevent accurate heart readings.
    • The Doppler echocardiogram involves the detection of changes in pitch of sound waves as blood moves through the heart. This method is used in most echocardiograms.
    • In a stress echocardiogram, ultrasound images are taken before and after exercise to pinpoint heart problems that only occur on stress or exertion.

    These tests are minimally invasive and are usually free from risks and side effects. In rare cases a stress test may cause a patient to faint or have chest pain. When this occurs the stress test is stopped immediately to allow the patient to recover.

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