An echocardiogram – also known as an echo – uses sound waves to build up a detailed picture of your heart. It is similar to the ultrasound scan used in pregnancy.

What does an echocardiogram show?

The echo looks at the structure of your heart and the heart valves, and also gives information on the function and pumping action of your heart.

It can be a useful test if you have recently had a heart attack or if you have heart failure. It is also used routinely to assess people with heart valve problems or congenital heart disease.

An echo is especially useful for diagnosing heart disease in newborn babies and children as it is painless and easy to do.

What happens when you have an echo?

You will have the test in a private room, because you’ll need to take the top half of your clothes off – you can wear a hospital gown if that makes you feel more comfortable.

With a standard echo – sometimes called a transthoracic echo or TTE - you will lie on a bed and lubricating jelly will be rubbed onto your chest to help the probe make good contact with your skin.

The probe will be placed in different areas of your chest and gives off pulses of high frequency sound waves which pass through your skin to your heart. The ultrasound waves ‘echo’ against the structures of your heart and the probe picks up these reflections and shows them in pictures on the screen of the echo machine. You can see different parts of the heart as the probe is moved around on your chest.

How long will it take?

The test can take from 15 minutes up to an hour. It’s a safe and easy test, and most people find it’s not uncomfortable at all.

Other types of echocardiogram

Transoesophageal echocardiogram (T.O.E.)

A transoesophageal echocardiography or T.O.E. takes detailed pictures of your heart from your oesophagus (the tube than connects your mouth to your stomach) which lies behind your heart. This test is used to get a closer and more defined image of the heart valves as it can detect things that are too small to be seen on a regular echo.

Watch the film below to see Dave's experience of a TOE:

You will lie on your side and be asked to ‘swallow’ a small probe which is mounted at the end of a flexible tube. To help you, an anaesthetic will be sprayed onto the back of your throat and you may be given a light sedative first to help you relax.

Ultrasound waves are then sent through your throat to your heart and the pictures are captured on the echo machine. This usually takes around 20 minutes and then the tube and probe are gently withdrawn. It can feel slightly unpleasant but should not be painful.

Stress echocardiogram

Occasionally an echocardiogram is done while the heart is under stress - by increasing the heart rate with either exercise or medication. This test can help to diagnose coronary heart disease, heart failure and cardiomyopathy.

Foetal echocardiogram

Foetal echocardiograms are used to help diagnose certain heart defects before a child is born. A foetal echocardiogram shows the baby's heart in more detail than a normal ultrasound scan used in pregnancy.

Bubble echo

Sometimes called a bubble study or contrast echo. 

A bubble echo involves performing an echo in the usual way whilst a small amount of salt water (saline) is injected into your blood stream, through a vein in your arm.  The salt water contains tiny bubbles which show up clearly on the scan pictures, and can be a useful way to identify a hole in the heart, or other heart defect. It is sometimes carried out after a stroke or TIA, or after complex heart surgery. The test is quick and painless, and the bubbles are harmless.

How your donations are improving access to echocardiograms

Thanks to your fundraising efforts, we can develop training courses, supported healthcare professionals and provided grants for equipment to help more patient access echocardiogram services.

We also fund thousands of research projects around the UK that are fighting for every heart beat – from babies born with life-threatening heart problems to the many parents and grandparents who suffer heart attacks.

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Want to find out more?

Tests booklet

Tests for heart conditions booklet

This booklet describes the special tests that are commonly used to help diagnose heart diseases.

Some of the tests are also used to assess the current condition of people who have already been diagnosed with heart disease.