An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to produce images of the heart. Also called an echo test or a heart ultrasound, the information created by an echocardiogram is more detailed than a standard x-ray image, and allows your cardiologist to see your heart beating and pumping blood.
Uses of Echocardiography
Echocardiography can help detect:
- Abnormal heart valves
- Irregular heartbeat
- Congenital heart disease
- Damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack
- Heart murmurs or clicks
- Inflammation (pericarditis) or fluid in the sac around the heart (pericardial effusion)
- Abnormal cardiac performance
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Blood clots following a stroke
Types of Echocardiograms
Depending on what information your heart doctor requires, you may undergo one of several types of echocardiograms.
- Transthoracic Echocardiogram (TTE)
- This is the most common type of echocardiogram. Images of the heart are acquired by moving a device that emits high frequency sound waves—called a transducer—to different locations on your chest or abdominal wall.
- Stress Echocardiogram
- For this test, an echocardiogram is done both before and after the heart is stressed either by having the patient exercise or by injecting a medicine that makes the heart beat more vigorously. A stress echocardiogram is usually done to find out if you have decreased blood flow to your heart (coronary artery disease).
- Doppler Echocardiogram
- This type of echocardiogram is used to visualise the speed and direction of blood flow through the heart chambers, heart valves, and blood vessels. The advantage of Doppler echocardiography is that it is non-invasive, unlike cardiac catheterisation.
- Transoesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE)
- This test requires that a scope be passed down the oesophagus instead of being moved along the outside of the chest wall. Because the probe is located closer to the heart and because the patient’s lungs and bones do not obstruct the sound waves produced by the probe, TEE produces a clearer echocardiogram of the heart.
There are no known risks for a TTE. TTE is safe for adults, children, and infants.
As for TEEs, there are some risks associated with the medicine given to help you relax. For instance, patients may have a bad reaction to the medicine, have problems breathing, or suffer from nausea. In addition, a patient’s throat may be sore for a few hours following the procedure. Rarely, the scope used during TEE may cause minor throat injuries.
Stress echocardiograms similarly carry some risk. However, these relate to the exercise or medicine used to raise your heart rate rather than the echocardiogram itself, which may temporarily cause an irregular heartbeat. Serious complications from stress tests such as a heart attack are very uncommon.