What is an Echocardiogram?

Your physician has just informed you that she’d like to order an echocardiogram for you, and now you’re wondering just what you’re in for. Well, I can provide you with a simple, layman’s explanation of just what an echocardiogram is (often referred to simply as an “echo”), and what you will experience during the test.

Simply put, and echocardiogram is an ultrasound. The device used is the same machine that is used to view a baby in the mother’s womb. Through the use of the ultrasound, the technician can get a good look at the structure and function of the heart, view any possible defects or inconsistencies, and use the echo as a diagnostic tool for what ever it is you may be experiencing that lead you to the test in the first place.

The echocardiogram is a simple, outpatient, painless procedure. When you’re taken back to the examination room, you will be asked to disrobe from the waste up and put on a hospital gown with the opening in the front. The lights in the room will be turned out, and the technician will then place a small amount of a conductive gel on the end of a handheld device called an echocardiogram transducer. You will then be asked to face away from the technician, and, if you’re female, a towel will be placed over the upper half of your body for privacy. The technician will then reach over you and place the transducer over your heart. You will then feel what can best be described as a smooth, slippery, rounded paddle, about the size of a television remote control, begin to slide around your chest over the area of your heart. There is a little pressure involved as the transducer is pressed firmly against the skin of your chest, but the discomfort is slight and there is nothing remotely approaching pain involved with the examination.

The transducer is emitting high frequency sound waves toward your heart, which in turn is reflecting the sound waves back to the transducer. The technician is able to get a picture of your heart from various angles, depending on where she is placing the transducer. In certain circumstances, for instance, if your cardiologist wants to check for any leaks between the chambers of your heart, a contrast dye called agitated saline may be injected into a vein in your arm, which will give the technician and your cardiologist a better view of the flow in the chambers.

All together, depending on what you’re looking for and whether any contrast dye is used, the echocardiogram can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. It is a very simple procedure, and you can resume your regular activities when it is finished. Other than the possibility of an injection of contrast dye, there is nothing invasive about the procedure. You may eat and drink, and take your usual medications (unless otherwise instructed by your physician) before your echocardiogram. Your ability to work, drive, or exercise should not be impacted afterwards.

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