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What is an echocardiogram?

The echocardiogram, or “echo” test, is an extremely useful test that allows your doctor to study your heart; when interpreted by our trained cardiologists at Tanner, the results are very accurate. The echocardiogram reveals important information; for instance, it helps detect problems with the heart valves such as aortic stenosis or mitral valve prolapse, and helps evaluate congenital heart disease. The echocardiogram is also a good way to get an overall idea of how your heart is functioning.

The standard echocardiogram is an easy, simple and noninvasive test. While you are on an examination table, a trained Tanner technologist holds a small device called a sound-wave transducer against your chest, sliding it back and forth. A gel-like substance might be applied to your chest to help slide the transducer. By aiming the transducer, the technologist will be able to get a clear image of most of the important areas of your heart. 

Echo tests are sometimes used in conjunction with stress tests

If this is the test your doctor ordered, an echo test is first made while you’re resting, and then repeated during exercise. Your doctor will study your test results for changes in the function of the heart muscle when exercise is performed. Deterioration in muscle function during exercise can indicate that there is a problem with your heart.

If you are able to achieve the target heart rate and the images are of good technical quality, a stress echo can diagnose disease in more than 85 percent of patients with coronary artery disease, and exclude disease in 90 percent of patients where test results are normal.

A special microphone, called a Doppler microphone, can be used during the test to listen to blood flow. Sounds you may hear are part of the Doppler signal. You may be asked to change positions during the exam in order for the technologist to get images of different areas of your heart. You may also be asked to hold your breath at times during the exam.

Why is your doctor requesting an echocardiogram?

Your doctor may order an echocardiogram for several reasons, including:

  • To determine the presence of many types of heart disease
  • To follow the progress of heart valve disease over time
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of medical or surgical treatments
  • To assess the overall function of your heart

How does the echocardiogram work?

The transducer sends sound waves toward the heart. The sound waves bounce off the heart, are collected by the transducer, processed by a computer, assembled into a two-dimensional image of the beating heart, and then displayed on a screen.

An echocardiogram is entirely safe. There are several types of echocardiograms, as we’ll explain below. Your doctor will determine which is right for you.

Types of echocardiograms

  • Transthoracic echocardiogram - This painless test is similar to X-ray, without the radiation. The health professional performing the test will place a hand-held device (a transducer) on your chest. The transducer transmits high frequency sound waves calledultrasound. The sound waves bounce off the different areas in your heart muscle, producing images and sounds that the cardiologist will use to detect any problems your heart may have.
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) - In this test, the transducer is inserted down the throat into the esophagus. Because the esophagus is located close to the heart, the doctor can obtain a clear picture of your heart’s structure. This type of echocardiogram can create images of cardiac structures that are difficult to see from a standard echo test. It also offers a way to view images during heart surgery.
  • Stress echocardiogram - Like the nuclear stress test, this is performed while you exercise on a treadmill or stationary bicycle. The doctor uses this test to see how the heart's walls move and its pumping action when you’re exercising. It’s important because the test can show a lack of blood flow that your doctor can’t always see from other heart tests.
  • Dobutamine (or adenosine/sestamibi) stress echocardiogram - This is another type of stress echocardiogram, which is used if you are unable to exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike. In this test, the stress is obtained by giving a drug that stimulates the heart as if you were exercising. This test can help your doctor determine how well your heart tolerates activity, and how likely you are to have coronary artery disease (blocked arteries). It can also help to determine the effectiveness of your cardiac treatment plan.

How do I prepare?

  • Do not eat or drink for three hours prior to the procedure (to reduce the likelihood of nausea). Diabetics, particularly those who use insulin, will need special instructions from the physician's office.
  • Do not drink or eat caffeine products (cola, chocolate, coffee, tea) for 24 hours before the test. Caffeine will interfere with the results of your test.
  • Since many over-the-counter medications contain caffeine, do not take any over-the-counter medications that contain caffeine for 24 hours before the test.
  • Do not take the following heart medications for 24 hours before your test unless your doctor tells you otherwise, or unless the medication is needed to treat chest discomfort: beta blockers (for example, Tenormin, Lopressor, Toprol, or Inderal), isosorbide dinitrate (for example, Isordil, Sorbitrate), isosorbide mononitrate (for example, Ismo, Imdur, Monoket), nitroglycerin (for example, Deponit, Nitrostat, Nitropatches).
  • If you use an inhaler for your breathing, please bring it to the stress echo test.
  • If you are scheduled for a dobutamine stress echo and you have a pacemaker, please contact your doctor for specific instructions. Your device may need to be checked before the test.

How long will it take?

This test is completely safe and usually takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

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