Echocardiography is an area of diagnostic imaging that focuses on the heart. Echocardiograms are diagnostic tests that create detailed, moving pictures of your heart in action. An “echo” test is helpful in pinpointing areas of the heart muscle that aren’t contracting well because of poor blood flow or injury from a previous heart attack. Doctors order echocardiograms to examine the heart’s structure and see how well the heart is functioning.
The procedure uses sound waves to create these images, much like an ultrasound. In fact, echos are sometimes referred to as heart ultrasounds or diagnostic cardiac ultrasounds.
Information Obtained Through Echocardiograms
Echocardiograms are simple outpatient procedures that require no injections or incisions and cause no discomfort. These imaging tools provide much more detail than a plain x-ray image and involve no radiation exposure. Echocardiograms can provide many different types of information. For example:
- Single-dimension images, known as M-modes, allow technicians to obtain accurate measurement of the heart chambers.
- A Doppler ultrasound shows how well blood flows through the heart’s chambers and valves.
- A 2-D Echo is capable of displaying a cross-sectional “slice” of the beating heart, including the chambers, valves, and the major blood vessels that exit from the left and right ventricle.
- Echos can be used to detect possible blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup in the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and problems with the aorta.
Echocardiograms provide doctors with the following information:
- The size and shape of the heart
- The size, thickness, and movement of the heart’s walls
- How well the heart moves
- The heart’s pumping strength
- Heart valve function and size
- Blood vessel health
- Blood flow and direction
- Tumor location and identification
- Blood clot discovery
- Abnormal holes in the heart
Why Doctors Order Echocardiograms
Physicians order echos when they are concerned with a patient’s heart function and health. An echocardiogram may be ordered if the patient:
- Has a heart murmur
- Has had a heart attack
- Has unexplained chest pains
- Has had rheumatic fever
- Has a congenital heart defect