What is an echocardiogram?

This procedure is often referred to as an echo or ultrasound of the heart. An echocardiogram allows us to see the beating heart through the use of ultrasound technology. With an echo we can assess the strength of the heart muscle, the function of the heart valves, look at the pericardium (the sac which contains the heart), and the origin of the aorta and pulmonary arteries. We can also estimate pressure inside certain chambers of the heart.

Why should I have this procedure?

There a numerous reasons why your doctor may order an echocardiogram. We will use echo to evaluate chest pain, shortness of breath, swelling of the legs and feet, heart murmur, congestive heart failure, heart attack, previous angioplasty or coronary bypass surgery, palpitations, hypertension, and pulmonary hypertension.

Where and how is the test performed?

The test may be performed in the cardiologist’s office or in the hospital. As an outpatient you will be brought to an exam room in the echo lab and will be asked to remove your upper body clothing and don a hospital gown. The ultrasound technician will place some electrode patches on your upper body that allow us to monitor your heart rate and take the echo pictures at the right time. You will be asked to lie on your left side in order to bring the heart closer to the chest wall and improve the quality of the pictures. The ultrasound technician will place cool gel at certain points on the chest and will then press the ultrasound probe to your chest and obtain pictures of your heart. You may be able to look at the TV monitor on the ultrasound machine and see your heart beating and you may hear some strange sounds from the echo machine as the technician makes measurements and calculations using Doppler technology. For certain views of the heart and blood vessels the technician may have you lie on your back or hold your breath.

How long does the procedure take?

The procedure typically takes about 30 minutes, but may be longer if additional pictures and calculations are needed. Echo imaging is sometimes challenging in people who are very thin, obese, or have lung disease such as COPD. In these cases the echo technician may need extra time to obtain the best images of the heart.

How do I prepare for the procedure?

There really isn’t any preparation needed for a standard echocardiogram. You should take your medications on the morning of the test unless you are told not to take a specific medication.

What are the risks of the procedure?

There are no risks involved with having a standard echocardiogram since it is a noninvasive test. Some people will notice an ache or sore spot in the locations the technician was pressing the ultrasound probe on the chest. This discomfort may be there a day or two. If the echo technician is not able to obtain good images he or she may use a contrast agent called Definity to obtain better images of the heart. Definity is a liquid compound which contains microspheres (microscopic bubbles) that is injected through an IV site. One to two percent of people have reported headache, nausea, back pain, kidney pain, or flushing with Definity, but the risk of serious problems is less than 1 in 500,000.