Patient Information – Echocardiography | IAC

What is an Echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is a safe, non-invasive procedure used to examine your heart and potentially diagnose problems. It uses high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound, not radiation) to literally see all four chambers of the heart, the heart valves, the great blood vessels entering and leaving the heart, as well as the sac around the heart. There are many reasons that your physician may request that you have an echocardiography examination. Physicians use echocardiography to look for abnormalities in the large physical structures of the heart, including the heart chambers and valves. An echocardiogram may sometimes also be used to look for the cause of an abnormal heart sound (a murmur), to check the size of the heart chambers, to check for fluid around the heart, or to inspect the pumping capability (the muscles) of the heart if a patient is short of breath or has complained of certain symptoms during exertion.

The information obtained through echocardiography examinations is extremely helpful to physicians in diagnosing a variety of conditions related to cardiovascular disease; disorders of the heart and blood vessels. Early detection of life-threatening heart disorders and disease is possible through the use of echocardiography procedures performed within echocardiography labs. Echocardiography’s reliability in diagnosing conditions related to heart disease and stroke is encouraging as we strive for ways to reduce the more than 800,000 lives lost in the United States each year to these disorders. However, it is critical that the public realizes there are many facets that contribute to an accurate diagnosis based on echocardiography. These factors include the skill of the sonographer performing the examination, the type of equipment used, the experience, training and knowledge of the interpreting physician, and quality assurance measures. In fact, poor ultrasound examinations often lead to inconvenient, redundant studies, misdiagnosis, and even unnecessary tests or surgery.


Types of Echocardiography Exams

  • Transthoracic Echocardiogram – An echocardiogram is performed to obtain information on the structure and function of the heart.
  • Stress Echocardiogram – Sometimes called a stress echo, is a tool used to evaluate heart function by combining an exercise (stress) test with a transthoracic echocardiogram. Most often requested to check blood flow to the heart, a stress echocardiogram uses ultrasound waves to produce images of the heart both before (sometimes during) and immediately following exercise. Images of the heart at rest are compared with images of the heart during and/or after exercise to evaluate how the heart responds to exercise. Patients with physical limitations that cause them to be unable to exercise may be given a Pharmacologic Stress Echocardiogram instead of an Exercise Stress Echocardiogram.
  • Transesophageal Echocardiogram – Used to evaluate the function and small detailed structures of the heart and associated vessels. The Transesophageal Echocardiogram is a variation of the Transthoracic Echocardiogram procedure. The TEE procedure uses ultrasound waves to produce images of the heart. Performing a TEE involves passing a tube into the esophagus, or swallowing a tube.
  • Fetal Echocardiogram – Uses ultrasound to look at the heart and major blood vessels of the fetus. Most commonly, pregnant women undergo a fetal echocardiogram to look for congenital heart defects, which are abnormalities of the heart that occur during development. Some pregnant women are referred for a fetal echocardiogram because of a heart rate abnormality detected during routine monitoring of the pregnancy. A fetal echocardiogram may be performed routinely beginning at 18-22 weeks gestation, but an earlier study may occasionally be indicated. It is an extension of the screening ultrasound examination that many women undergo performed during their fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. A fetal echocardiogram is able to diagnose only serious structural abnormalities of the heart. Minor heart defects, abnormalities involving very small structures, and abnormalities in the change from a fetal circulation to a newborn circulation can only be detected after birth.
  • Pediatric Transthoracic Echocardiogram – As detailed above, an echocardiogram is performed to obtain information on the structure and functions of the heart and associated blood vessels. Most children undergo pediatric echocardiograms to look for congenital heart defects, which are abnormalities of the heart that may be present at birth. A congenital heart defect may exist if the pediatrician or pediatric cardiologist hears a murmur (which is an abnormal sound made by the heart pumping blood). Some children undergo echocardiograms to look for causes of chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting.

The purpose of the IAC Echocardiography accreditation program is “to ensure high quality patient care and to promote health care by providing a mechanism to encourage and recognize the provision of quality echocardiographic diagnostic evaluations by a process of accreditation.”

Excerpts of this information are taken, with permission, from the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE) Patient Information website, www.seemyheart.org, and copyrighted See My Heart printed patient brochures. Echocardiography facilities interested in ordering copies of patient education brochures from the ASE can obtain more information through www.seemyheart.org.

Resources for Patients

ASE | See My Heart
A patient information site dedicated to helping patients and the public better understand heart and circulation ultrasound. Brought to you by the Heart and Circulation Ultrasound Experts at the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE). Learn more at www.seemyheart.org.