Understanding Echocardiograms: Non-Invasive Imaging for Assessing Heart Health
September 20, 2023
An echocardiogram, also called an echo or cardiac ultrasound, is a non-invasive imaging test that uses sound waves to produce live visual images of the heart. It allows cardiologists to examine the size, structure, pumping action and blood flow through the heart and associated valves and vessels. Read on to understand when an echocardiogram may be recommended, what it involves and how it helps assess the health of your heart comprehensively.
Why Do Doctors Recommend Echocardiograms?
Echocardiography may be ordered by your doctor if you have symptoms or health conditions including:
Shortness of breath, edema, fatigue - to check heart function
Chest pain, palpitations - to look for heart disease
Heart murmurs noticed on auscultation - to identify causes
High cholesterol, high blood pressure - to assess any heart damage
Follow up for heart attack, CAD, angiograms - to guide treatment
Prior heart surgery - to evaluate repair results
Monitor heart function during chemotherapy
Screening in pediatric heart disease, Kawasaki’s disease
Assess valves in suspected stenosis, regurgitation
Cardiomyopathy diagnosis and management
Raised troponin or BNP levels indicating heart injury
The scan offers valuable information to enable optimal treatment decisions by your cardiologist when heart problems are suspected.
Different Types of Echocardiograms
The various echocardiogram types your doctor may recommend depending on which part of the heart needs evaluation are:
Transthoracic Echocardiogram (TTE) - The transducer is moved over the chest to get images of the heart structures, valves, and function of left and right ventricle. This is the standard and most common echocardiogram.
Transoesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE) – A specialized transducer is passed down the esophagus giving clearer images of the back of the heart, valves, and sources of blood clots. This is done when transthoracic imaging quality is inadequate.
Stress Echocardiography – Images are taken while the heart is made to beat faster through exercise on a treadmill or medicine-induced stress. This checks heart function under exertion when symptoms are more noticeable.
Fetal Echocardiography - The fetal heart is examined via ultrasound for congenital defects and malformations during pregnancy.
3D Echocardiography – This uses advanced technology to get three-dimensional views of the heart for better visualization of valve disorders and guiding procedures.
Doppler Echocardiography – The Doppler effect assesses blood flow through the valves and chambers to detect areas of turbulence or backflow suggesting disease.
An echocardiogram is an outpatient procedure and quite easy on the patient. Here is what you can expect:
No fasting or preparation needed. Wear comfortable loose clothing with an accessible upper body.
The test takes from 30 to 60 minutes. You lie on your left side on a table. Conductive gel is applied on the chest.
A transducer (wand) is moved over skin surfaces to different heart locations while images display on the monitor.
You may be asked to breathe deep, hold breath, or change positions during image capture of specific areas.
Doppler and 3D echocardiography require additional scanning with the transducer for flow assessment.
For stress echos, you either exercise on the treadmill or get medications to stimulate your heart rate. Imaging is repeated afterward.
Echocardiography is absolutely painless and non-invasive making it very patient-friendly and safe.
Interpreting the Results
The recorded echocardiogram images, videos, and Doppler measurements are carefully studied by the reporting cardiologist who prepares a detailed report. Your cardiologist will explain the interpreted findings, which may include:
Heart size - Enlarged or smaller than normal, wall thickness
Pumping Function - Volume of blood pumped by each ventricle per beat – ejection fraction – normally 50-75%
In summary, echocardiography offers a comprehensive, non-invasive imaging method to gain valuable insights into the anatomical structure and functioning of the heart. It is helpful in the diagnosis, risk stratification, treatment planning and monitoring of a wide spectrum of cardiovascular diseases. Advances like 3D echocarbiography are enhancing the diagnostic power further.
By providing clear visuals of your beating heart’s pumping action and flow dynamics, echocardiograms enable cardiologists to accurately evaluate heart health and make treatment decisions that save lives.
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