According to John Hopkins Hospital, an echocardiogram is not an invasive (does not go thru the skin) procedure used to assess the heart’s function and structures. During the procedure, a transducer (like a microphone) sends out sound waves at a frequency too high to be heard. When the transducer is placed on the chest at certain locations and angles, the sound waves move through the skin and other body tissues to the heart tissues, where the waves bounce or “echo” off of the heart structures. These sound waves are sent to a computer that can create moving images of the heart walls and valves.
An echocardiogram may use several special types of echocardiography, as listed below:
- M-mode echocardiography. This, the simplest type of echocardiography, produces an image that is similar to a tracing rather than an actual picture of heart structures. M-mode echo is useful for measuring or viewing heart structures, such as the heart’s pumping chambers, the size of the heart itself, and the thickness of the heart walls.
- Doppler echocardiography. This Doppler technique is used to measure and assess the flow of blood through the heart’s chambers and valves. The amount of blood pumped out with each beat is an indication of the heart’s functioning. Also, Doppler can detect abnormal blood flow within the heart, which can indicate a problem with one or more of the heart’s four valves, or with the heart’s walls.
- Color Doppler. Color Doppler is an enhanced form of Doppler echocardiography. With color Doppler, different colors are used to designate the direction of blood flow. This simplifies the interpretation of the Doppler technique.
- 2-D (two-dimensional) echocardiography. This technique is used to “see” the actual motion of the heart structures. A 2-D echo view appears cone-shaped on the monitor, and the real-time motion of the heart’s structures can be observed. This enables the doctor to see the various heart structures at work and evaluate them.
- 3-D (three-dimensional) echocardiography. 3-D echo technique captures three-dimensional views of the heart structures with greater detail than 2-D echo. The live or “real time” images allow for a more accurate assessment of heart function by using measurements taken while the heart is beating. 3-D echo shows enhanced views of the heart’s anatomy and can be used to determine the appropriate plan of treatment for a person with heart disease.
Why might you need an echocardiogram?
An echocardiogram may be done for further evaluation of signs or symptoms that may suggest:
- Atherosclerosis. A gradual clogging of the arteries by fatty materials and other substances in the blood stream. It can lead to problems in the wall motion or pumping function of your heart.
- Cardiomyopathy. An enlargement of the heart due to thick or weak heart muscle
- Congenital heart disease. Defects in one or more heart structures that occur during formation of the fetus, such as a ventricular septal defect (hole in the wall between the 2 lower chambers of the heart).
- Heart failure. A condition in which the heart muscle has become weakened or stiff during heart relaxation and blood can’t be pumped efficiently. This can cause fluid buildup (congestion) in the blood vessels and lungs, and edema (swelling) in the feet, ankles, and other parts of the body.
- Aneurysm. A widening and weakening of a part of the heart muscle or the aorta (the large artery that carries oxygenated blood out of the heart to the rest of the body). The aneurysm may be at risk for rupture. .
- Heart valve disease. Malfunction of one or more of the heart valves that may cause an abnormality of the blood flow within the heart. The valves can become narrowed and prevent blood from flowing through the heart or out to the lungs and body. The valves can also become leaky with blood flow leaking backwards. An echocardiogram can also check for infection of the heart valve tissue.
- Cardiac tumor. A tumor of the heart that may occur on the outside surface of the heart, within one or more chambers of the heart , or within the muscle tissue (myocardium) of the heart.
- Pericarditis. An inflammation or infection of the sac that surrounds the heart.
- Pericardial effusion or tamponade. The sac around the heart can become filled with fluid, blood, or infection. This can compress the heart muscle and prevent it from beating and pumping blood normally. This can cause symptoms of feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or a dangerous drop in blood pressure.
- Atrial or septal wall defects. Irregular channels between the right and left sides of the heart may be present at birth, or may occur form trauma, or after a heart attack. These defects occur in the upper filling chambers (atria) or the lower pumping chambers (ventricles). This may cause heart failure or poor blood flow, or increase your risk for stroke.
- Shunts. Shunts can be seen in atrial and ventricular septal defects but also when irregular blood flow is pushed through the circulation from the lungs and liver.
An echocardiogram may also be done to assess the heart’s overall function and general structure.