Echocardiography is a safe and painless diagnostic procedure that uses high frequency sound waves (ultrasound-principle similar to sonar or radar) to take moving pictures of the heart. The sound waves are directed towards the heart from a small hand-held device (a transducer) that sends and receives these signals. Objects, such as the heart walls and valves, reflect part of the sound waves back to the transducer where they are used to produce pictures of the heart on a television-like screen. In this way it is possible to measure the size of each of the four chambers of the heart, to study the appearance and motion of the heart valves and to conclude how efficiently the heart muscle contracts. Measurements taken from these pictures are helpful in determining how well your heart is working, and also helps to determine whether or not there are any abnormalities present. These sound waves are also used to judge the speed, amount and direction of the blood flowing through parts of your heart and great vessels (Doppler Echocardiography). This test can be used to determine if there are any congenital heart defects, valve abnormalities or abnormalities of the pumping chambers.
What Special Preparations are Required Before Undergoing Echocardiography?
You may eat and go about your normal activities unless otherwise informed. In general, the test is painless, and you will feel no discomfort. Wear a two piece out-fit as you will need to undress to the waist. This test does not require you to stop taking your regular medication, unless advised by your doctor.
How Long Does an Echocardiography Examination Take and What Can You Expect?
The echocardiographic examination is performed and recorded by a highly trained Echocardiographer. It may take up to an hour, depending upon how easily the necessary information is obtained. The transducer must be placed directly on the chest wall or upper abdomen for the examination. You will be offered a gown or a sheet to keep warm and to minimize the area on the chest that must be exposed at any one time while the test is being performed.
During the test an electrocardiogram is recorded with small adhesive patches and harmless wires. The electrocardiogram is useful for the timing of events in the heart. On occasions more than one transducer is applied to the chest and also heart sounds or pulses may be recorded along with the echocardiogram. On occasions, the Doppler Echocardiography when activated may be noisy.
Does It Hurt?
Ultrasound cannot be felt and does not hurt. There are no known harmful or proven adverse effects from cardiac ultrasound. If one is pregnant during the time an echocardiogram is performed there is no known danger to either mother or baby from this procedure. To improve the quality of the picture, a harmless, odourless and water-soluble “gel” is applied to the skin where the transducer will be placed. This may feel cool and a bit moist, but the “gel” can be wiped off at the completion of this examination. During the procedure it is normal to feel a slight pressure and/or vibration from the transducer, which is not painful.
During the examination the room lights may be dimmed to reduce any glare and better see the “TV’ screen. Patients are usually asked to lie on a hospital bed or examination table. Changes in position of the body are sometimes necessary in order to get better pictures, and patients are frequently asked to change position from lying flat to lying on the left side. Ultrasound waves travel poorly through bone or lungs; therefore, breath holding can be used to keep the air-filled lungs out of the way of the ultrasound beam and allow the heart to move closer to the transducer.
When Will I Know What the Results of the Test Are?
Although the Echocardiographer performing this test may explain what is being seen on the television-like screen as the examination is in progress, it is essential to obtain precise measurements. If you have had previous echocardiograms, the new ones will be compared with these and a Doctor will analyse any differences. These results will be sent to your referring Doctor. You will be asked to return to see this Doctor at which time this doctor will review with you the results and final diagnosis.