What Is an Echocardiogram?

What to expect when undergoing this test

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An echocardiogram, often called a cardiac echo, is a non-invasive ultrasound imaging test used to observe the heart.

A cardiac echo is considered the best way to visualize the movement and function of the heart muscle and heart valves. You may need a cardiac echo if you have heart valve disease, heart rhythm irregularities, or cardiac muscle diseases such as dilated cardiomyopathy or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

This article explains why an echocardiogram may be used and what kinds of heart problems it can detect. It will also describe in detail how to prepare for the test, what happens during the test, and what the results mean for you.

what to expect during an echocardiogram
 Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Also Known As

Other terms for an echocardiogram include:

  • Transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE)
  • Cardiac echo
  • Cardiac ultrasound

Purpose of the Test

A cardiac echo is used to identify abnormalities in the heart's structure and function. A handheld device sends out sound waves that bounce off your heart and create a moving image of it on a screen. This allows your doctor to look at the anatomy of your heart from many different angles and to observe your heart rhythm.

If you have symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, or fainting, you may need a cardiac echo. This is especially true if a stethoscope or an electrocardiogram (EKG) (a test that charts the electrical activity of your heart) suggest that you have a structural heart problem.

Uses

A cardiac echo allows your doctor to watch your heart as it beats so that specific areas of concern can be identified. Some of the heart functions an echo can detect include:

  • Problems with the heart valves such as mitral valve prolapse. This can be detected because the test shows how well your hearts valves are functioning.
  • The velocity (speed) of blood flow in various areas within the heart. A special microphone called a Doppler can be used during the test to measure this. This is helpful in measuring problems with blood flow in conditions such as aortic stenosis
  • Anatomical defects. Congenital heart conditions such as tetralogy of Fallot and atrial septal defect are congenital conditions (present from birth) in which the heart does not develop properly.
  • Left ventricular ejection fraction. "Ejection fraction" is a term used to describe how strong the heart is and how well it pumps blood. An echo can evaluate how well various cardiac treatments are working in people with conditions such as heart failure.
  • Cardiac arrhythmia, which is an irregular heart rhythm. An echo can assess your heartbeat. This may help in determining the exact cause and best treatment if you do have an arryhthmia.

Echocardiograms are also sometimes used along with stress tests to evaluate heart function. An echo test is done while you are at rest and then repeated while you exercise (usually on a treadmill) to look for changes in the function of the heart muscle when you are exerting yourself. Problems with heart muscle function during exercise can be a sign of coronary artery disease.

Limitations

While the echocardiogram provides a lot of information about cardiac anatomy, it does not show the coronary arteries or any blockages in them. Another test called cardiac catheterization is commonly performed if your coronary arteries need to be examined closely.

In people with certain conditions such as a thick chest wall or emphysema, it may be difficult to visualize the heart during an echocardiogram. If you have one of these conditions and need an echo, you might need an invasive ultrasound of your heart known as a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE). With this, a device is placed in the esophagus in order to view the heart.

Risks and Contraindications

An echocardiogram is considered a safe procedure with no known risks.

Recap

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. This test can measure how well the heart is pumping blood, how well the valves are working, and how well the blood is flowing through the body. An echo may be recommended if you are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or fainting.

Before the Test

You do not need to do anything special to prepare for an echocardiogram and you do not need to have any screening tests before having an echo. Here is what you can expect:

Timing

In general, you can expect the test to take about an hour. As with all diagnostic tests, you should arrive at least 15 to 30 minutes in advance so that you can sign in and fill out all necessary forms.

Location

Most medical offices will recommend that you have your echo at a cardiac testing center. If you have health insurance, your carrier may require you to go to an approved location.

What to Wear

You will need to wear an examination gown for the test itself. Once it is over, you can change back into your clothes.

Food and Drink

There are no food and drink restrictions before an echocardiogram. However, depending on the reason for the test, your doctor may ask you to avoid caffeine for six to 10 hours before the test. This is because caffeine can speed up your heart rate.

Cost and Health Insurance

Your health insurance may require a pre-authorization for a diagnostic echo. You also may be responsible for a copay. You can check with your health insurance provider or with the cardiac testing center—both should be able to answer your questions about these issues.

If you are paying for the test yourself, it is likely to cost you several thousand dollars. This includes facility fees, technical fees, equipment fees, and a professional fee. These costs can range widely and it is highly likely that your doctor and the other healthcare providers taking care of you do not know the cost of the echo. You can ask the facility what the total cost is and for a breakdown of the fees.

What to Bring

You should bring your referral form (if it wasn't already sent electronically), your insurance card, a form of identification, and a method of payment.

During the Test

A technician or a doctor will perform your echo. Often, a technician does some or all of the test, but a doctor, usually a cardiologist, will look at your heart images while you are having your echo. They may want to adjust the transducer—the handheld device used—to visualize additional views, if necessary. Your own doctor may be present at your echo test, or another cardiologist may be there.

Pre-Test

You will be asked to change into an examination gown for the test.

During the Test

As the test begins, you will lie on an examination table and a technician will place some gel on your chest. Then they will place a transducer—a small device shaped like a microphone on that area.

The transducer sends sound waves toward your heart. Like the sonar on a submarine, the waves bounce off the structures of the heart and return to the transducer, where they are recorded. They are then processed by a computer and appear on a screen, providing a visual image of your beating heart.

The technician moves the transducer around to visualize your heart from different angles. You may be asked to roll on your side or to hold your breath for a few seconds during the test. Overall, a cardiac echo usually takes 30 to 60 minutes to complete.

Post-Test

After the test is complete, you may be given a small towel or pad to clean up the gel. Then you can change back into your clothes and leave. Typically, results are not ready right away, because the doctor may want to review the test and look at some images more carefully before preparing a report.

You do not have to adjust your activities, and there are no side effects after having an echo.

Recap

An echocardiogram is a fairly simple, non-invasive test that doesn't cause pain or side effects. An echo is usually done at a cardiac testing center. You should allow about an hour for this test.

Interpreting Results

The results of your echo will be prepared in a written report by your doctor. The report will describe the heart anatomy, heart movements, and any defects observed during the test. It may take several days to several weeks for you to receive the report. Often, because the results are so detailed, your doctor may schedule an appointment with you to discuss the results and next steps.

The report should include:

  • The rate of your heartbeat: Normal range is between 60 and 100 beats per minute
  • An evaluation of the size of your heart. Dilation of chambers means that your heart is enlarged.
  • A description of the pericardium, the protective tissue around your heart, including whether the appearance is normal. If it is not normal, it should describe any abnormalities.
  • An assessment of the thickness of your heart in relation to what is expected for your age, size, and gender
  • A conclusion about the function of your ventricles with details about any abnormalities
  • An evaluation about the shape and movement of your heart valves and whether regurgitation (leaking of blood flow) was observed
  • A comment about whether any blood clots were seen in your heart
  • A description of any anatomical or congenital defects or unexpected findings

Your report may also include a comment about the quality of the images. If the images did not come out clearly, that might make the results less reliable.

Follow-Up

A cardiac echo is used to assess many different conditions. As such, follow-up recommendations are highly variable and depend on the findings. You may eventually need to have another echo if you have a chronic heart condition, but regularly scheduled echocardiogram follow-ups are not typical.

In general, follow-up after an echo is focused on the treatment of your heart condition. For example, if the test was used to diagnose a congenital heart condition, the next steps may include surgical repair. If it is detected heart failure, medication adjustments may be needed. If it is used for evaluation of an arrhythmia, medication, surgery, or a pacemaker may be needed.

In some situations, a TEE may be ordered after after echo results are reviewed, particularly if your doctors are concerned that you have a heart problem that was not detected. A TEE looks at the heart by placing an ultrasound device inside your esophagus, instead of outside your chest. There are pros and cons to both tests, and the most significant difference is that TEE is invasive and requires sedation. A TEE may also be used for surgical planning.

Summary

Echocardiograms are used to diagnose a variety of heart conditions, including congenital defects, mitral valve prolapse, and heart failure. After the test, your doctor will write a detailed report of the results. A treatment plan will be put in place depending on the findings.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one needs a cardiac echo, you can rest assured that this is a safe and uncomplicated test. There are many different reasons for having the test, as well as a variety of possible outcomes. Most of the time, problems identified with an echo can be treated with medication. Sometimes, heart surgery, which has a very good success rate, is needed to repair the problem. If you are unclear about what your results mean, speak with your doctor.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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