An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to create pictures of the heart. The picture is more detailed than a standard x-ray image. An echocardiogram does not expose you to radiation.
Transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE); Echocardiogram - transthoracic; Doppler ultrasound of the heart; Surface echo
How the Test is Performed
TRANSTHORACIC ECHOCARDIOGRAM (TTE)
TTE is the type of echocardiogram that most people will have.
A trained sonographer performs the test. A heart doctor (cardiologist) interprets the results.
An instrument called a transducer is placed on your ribs near the breast bone and directed toward the heart. This device releases high-frequency sound waves. Images will be taken at other locations as well, including underneath and slightly to the left of your nipple and in the upper abdomen.
The transducer picks up the echoes of sound waves and transmits them as electrical impulses. The echocardiography machine converts these impulses into moving pictures of the heart. Still pictures are also taken.
Pictures can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional. The type of picture will depend on the part of the heart being evaluated and the type of machine.
A Doppler echocardiogram records the motion of blood through the heart.
An echocardiogram allows doctors to see the heart beating. It also shows the heart valves and other structures.
In some cases, your lungs, ribs, or body tissue may prevent the sound waves and echoes from providing a clear picture of heart function. If this is a problem, the sonographer may inject a small amount of liquid (contrast) through an IV to better see the inside of the heart.
Rarely, more invasive testing using special echocardiography probes may be needed.
TRANSESOPHAGEAL ECHOCARDIOGRAM (TEE)
The back of your throat is numbed and a scope is inserted down your throat.
On the end of the scope is a device that sends out sound waves. A heart doctor with special training will guide the scope down the esophagus. This method is used to get a clearer echocardiogram of your heart.
How to Prepare for the Test
No special steps are needed before a TTE test. If you are having a TEE, will not be able to eat or drink for several hours before the test.
How the Test will Feel
You will need to take off your clothes from the waist up and lie on an exam table on your back.
Electrodes will be placed on your chest to monitor your heart beat.
A gel is spread on your chest and the transducer will be moved over your skin. You will feel a slight pressure on your chest from the transducer.
You may be asked to breathe in a certain way or to roll over onto your left side. Sometimes a special bed is used to help you stay in the proper position.
Why the Test is Performed
This test is done to evaluate the valves and chambers of the heart from the outside of your body. The echocardiogram can help detect:
Your health care provider may recommend a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) if:
The regular or transthoracic echocardiogram is unclear. Unclear results may be due to the shape of your chest, lung disease, or excess body fat.
An area of the heart needs to be looked at in more detail.
A normal echocardiogram reveals normal heart valves and chambers and normal heart wall movement.
What Abnormal Results Mean
An abnormal echocardiogram can mean many things. Some abnormalities are very minor and do not pose major risks. Other abnormalities are signs of serious heart disease. You will need more tests by a specialist in this case. It is very important to talk about the results of your echocardiogram with your health care provider.
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.