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An echocardiogram is a heart ultrasound

When do you need a cardiac ultrasound, and how is it done?

Also known as a transthoracic (across the chest) echocardiogram or TTE, essentially it's an ultrasound image of your heart.

Just as ultrasound images or pictures allow physicians to check the size and condition of a baby still in the womb, your doctor can use echocardiography to have a good look at your heart without invasive measures.

Ultrasound waves (high frequency sounds that humans cannot hear) are directed at your heart and bounce back (echo). A computer analyzes the time it takes for the waves to reach the heart and bounce back and then creates a computer image of your beating heart.

When do you need one?

Cardiac ultrasound is a valuable tool for diagnosing a wide range of heart diseases and for monitoring changes over time. Ultrasound images allow doctors to assess

  • your heart's size and shape including the thickness of the heart wall
  • the strength of your heat and how well it is pumping blood
  • if there are any cardiac tumors
  • if there are any valve problems
  • if your heart has been damaged or has any structural abnormalities
  • if there are abnormal blood flow patterns - such as the backward flow of blood through heart valves (regurgitation).

How is it done?

An echocardiogram is generally done at a clinic or hospital or at your cardiologist's office. The procedure is performed by a technician but your doctor will analyze the results.

You don't have to do anything special to prepare. Just wear comfortable clothes.

When you arrive at the clinic you will have to remove your clothing from the waist up and put on a hospital gown.

For the duration of the test, you lie on a bed on your back or left side in a darkened room. A special lubricant gel is applied to your chest to improve conduction of the sound waves. The technician will use a device called a transducer (that looks similar to a microphone linked by a wire to the computer) to direct the sound waves, moving the device gently against your chest to get views from a variety of angles.

Generally it is very relaxing and not intrusive or painful (I've actually fallen asleep), but occasionally people feel some pressure against the chest wall or in the ribs. Periodically you will be asked to inhale, exhale, then hold your breath so the technician can get a good image. This is because the air in your lungs can interfere with the image.

The process may take from 15 minutes to over an hour depending on variables such as what the doctor is looking for and the success in obtaining good images.

What would prevent getting good images?

  • Lung disease
  • Obesity
  • Spinal or chest wall abnormalities
  • Breast implants or very large breasts
  • Prior heart or chest surgery

In these cases, your doctor may require that you have a transesophageal echocardiogram.

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