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Echocardiography is painless and usually takes less than an hour to perform. For some tests, the doctor will need to inject saline or a special dye into your vein that makes your heart show up more clearly on the test images. This special dye is different from the dye used during an angiogram test.
For most types of echocardiography, you will be asked to remove your clothing from the waist up. Women will be given a gown to wear during the procedure. You will lay on your back or left side on an exam table or stretcher.
EKG electrodes will be attached to your chest to allow an EKG to be done. A doctor or sonographer (a person specially trained to do ultrasounds) will apply a gel to your chest that helps the sound waves reach your heart. A wand-like device called a transducer will then be moved around on your chest.
The transducer transmits ultrasound waves into your chest. Echoes from the sound waves will be converted into pictures of your heart on a computer screen. During the test, the lights in the room are dimmed so the computer screen is easier to see.
The sonographer will make several recordings of the images to show different locations in your heart. The recordings will be put on a computer disc or videotape for the cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in treating people who have heart problems) to review.
During the test, you may be asked to change positions or hold your breath for a short time so that the sonographer can get good pictures of your heart. At times, the sonographer may apply a bit of pressure to your chest with the transducer. This pressure can be a little uncomfortable, but it helps the sonographer get the best picture of your heart. You should let him or her know if you feel too uncomfortable.
Echocardiography is similar for fetal echocardiography, except in that test the transducer is placed over the location of the developing baby’s heart.
Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) is used when the doctor needs a more detailed view of your heart. This may be necessary to look for blood clots in the heart or if transthoracic echocardiography doesn’t provide a good enough view of certain parts of the heart. A doctor, not a sonographer, performs this type of echocardiography.
The test uses the same technology as transthoracic echocardiography, but the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube. The tube is guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach) to get a more detailed image of the heart and major blood vessels leading to and from the heart.
For TEE, you will probably be given medicine through a needle inserted in one of your veins to help you relax during the test. Your blood pressure, the oxygen content of your blood, and other vital signs will be monitored during the test. You will be given oxygen through a tube to your nose. If you wear dentures or partials, you will have to remove them.
The back of your mouth is numbed with a gel or a spray so that you don’t gag when the transducer is put down your throat. The tube with the transducer on the end is gently placed in your throat and guided down until it’s in place behind the heart. The images of your heart are then recorded as the doctor moves the transducer around in your esophagus and stomach. You shouldn’t feel any discomfort as this happens. Although the imaging usually takes less than an hour, you may be monitored for a few hours at the doctor’s office or hospital after the test.
Stress echocardiography is a transthoracic echocardiogram combined with either an exercise or chemical stress test. For an exercise stress test, you walk or run on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle to make your heart beat fast and pump hard. For a chemical stress test, you’re given medicine to make your heart beat fast and pump hard.
The Diseases and Conditions Index Stress Testing article provides additional information on what to expect during a cardiac stress test.
As the doctor or sonographer moves the transducer around, different views of your heart can be seen on the screen of the echocardiography machine. The structures of the heart will appear as white objects, while any fluid or blood will appear black on the screen.
Doppler ultrasound techniques are often used during echocardiography tests. Doppler ultrasound is a special ultrasound that shows how blood is flowing through the blood vessels. This allows the sonographer to see the blood flowing in different speeds and directions. The speeds and directions appear as different colors moving within the black and white images.
The human ear is unable to hear the sound waves used in echocardiography. If Doppler ultrasound is used, however, you may be able to hear a “whooshing” sound as the echocardiography machine converts the echoes into sounds that can be heard and which the doctor can use as information about the flow of blood through your heart.
Author/Source: National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute, Division of the National Institutes of Health [NIH]
Retrieved: June 2008