Echocardiography is perhaps the most common study performed by cardiologists. This test uses ultrasound (sound waves) to painlessly take pictures of the heart non-invasively. There is no contrast and no radiation making “echo” an extremely safe test.
What does an Echocardiogram show?
Your cardiologist may order this study for a variety of reasons. This test is helpful in patients with chest pains, shortness of breath, arrhythmias and a wide variety of other cardiac conditions. This study can typically be completed in 15 minutes or less.
The “echo” can accurately evaluate the pumping function of the heart and identify areas of the heart muscle that have been damaged or weakened. It is also invaluable in the assessment of valvular heart disease, e.g. heart valves that are not closing properly resulting in valve leakage (e.g. mitral regurgitation) or are not opening properly (e.g. aortic stenosis) or even show valves with infections on them (“endocarditis”). Other important conditions such as pericardial effusion (fluid around the heart) or abnormal thickening of the heart muscle (“hypertrophy”) are easily identified and quantitatively measured with echocardiography.
In some cases, obtaining a trans-esophageal echocardiogram may be ordered, as well, (typically performed in the hospital rather than the office). In this study, the patient is sedated and an endoscope with an ultrasound probe at the end of it is advanced down the throat into the esophagus so that ultrasound pictures of the heart can be obtained from inside the body with the probe positioned extremely close to the heart. These “higher definition” images are particularly helpful for identifying valvular infections, thrombus (clot) within the heart or even “holes” in the heart muscle (e.g. atrial septal defect) which often are difficult to visualize with a standard echo study.