What is an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is a noninvasive procedure used to assess the heart's function and structures. During the procedure, a transducer (like a microphone) sends out sound waves at a frequency too high to be heard by the human ear. When the transducer is placed on the chest at certain locations and angles, the sound waves move through the skin and other body tissues to reach the heart tissues, where the waves bounce or "echo" off of the heart structures. These sound waves are sent to a computer that creates the moving images that becomes the echocardiogram that assesses the heart walls and heart valves.

What are the risks of an echocardiogram?

This imaging procedure is not invasive in the body and carries little to no risks. You may have discomfort from the positioning of the transducer which can put pressure on the surface of the body.

For some people, having to lie still on the exam table for the length of the procedure may cause some discomfort or pain.

There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your doctor prior to the procedure.

What happens during the procedure?

An echocardiogram may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital.

Generally, an echocardiogram follows this process:

  • You will be asked to remove clothing from the waist up and will be given a gown to wear.
  • You will lie on a table or bed, positioned on your left side.
  • The room will be darkened so that the images on the echo monitor can be viewed by the technologist.
  • You will be connected to an ECG monitor that records and monitors the electrical activity of the heart and monitors the heart during the procedure using small, adhesive electrodes. The ECG tracings that record the electrical activity of the heart will be compared to the images displayed on the echocardiogram monitor.
  • The technologist will place gel on your chest and then place the transducer probe on the gel. You will feel a slight pressure as the technologist positions the transducer to obtain the desired images of your heart.
  • During the test, the technologist will move the transducer probe around and apply varying amounts of pressure to obtain images of different locations and structures of your heart. The amount of pressure behind the probe should not be uncomfortable. If it does make you uncomfortable, however, let the technologist know. You may be asked to hold your breath, take deep breaths, or even sniff through your nose during the procedure.
  • If the structures of your heart are difficult to see, the technologist may use an IV enhancing agent sometimes called contrast that helps the heart chambers show up better. This is not an iodine-based agent so you do not have to worry if you have an allergy to shrimp or shellfish with this type of contrast.
  • After the procedure has been completed, the technologist will wipe the gel from your chest and remove the ECG electrode pads. You may then put on your clothes.

What happens after an echocardiogram?

Generally, there is no special type of care following an echocardiogram. However, your doctor may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

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