What does an echocardiogram show?
An echo looks at the structures of your heart, and gives information on how well your heart is pumping.
It is often done if you have had a heart attack or if you have been diagnosed with heart failure as it shows how much heart muscle is affected. It is also used routinely to diagnose and assess heart valve problems or congenital heart disease (heart conditions people are born with).
What happens when you have an echocardiogram?
You will be given a hospital gown to wear as you will need to remove all clothing from your top half when the echo is done. Your privacy will be maintained as you will be behind curtains or in a hospital clinic room in the outpatients department.
With a standard echo, sometimes called a transthoracic echo or TTE, you’ll be asked to lie on a couch or bed. A gel used especially for scanning will be used to help the sound waves reach your heart. It feels cold and sticky, but is otherwise harmless.
The healthcare professional (called a sonographer) doing the procedure will move the probe in different areas of your chest around your heart. The probe 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 as images on a screen.
Different parts of the heart are seen as the probe is moved around on your chest.
How long will an echocardiogram take?
It varies from person to person and can take from 15 minutes up to an hour. It’s a very common, safe test, and most people find it’s not uncomfortable, although you may feel a bit of pressure as the technician presses the probe onto your chest to obtain the best images.
Other types of echocardiogram
Transoesophageal echocardiogram (TOE)
A transoesophageal echocardiography, or TOE, takes detailed pictures of your heart from your oesophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach) which lies behind your heart. This test is used to get closer and more defined images of the heart as it can detect things that are not as easy to see with a transthoracic echo.
You will be asked to lie on your side and ‘swallow’ a small probe which is mounted at the end of a flexible tube. A local anaesthetic that numbs the area will be sprayed onto the back of your throat and you will be offered a short-acting light sedative to help you relax. The procedure usually takes about 30 minutes.
The technician will obtain the images they need and remove the tube as soon as the procedure is done.
Watch the film below to see Dave's experience of a TOE:
An echocardiogram may be done while the heart is beating faster – a stress echo is performed while deliberately increasing the heart rate with either exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike, or with medication given through a vein. This test can help to diagnose coronary heart disease as it shows the coronary arteries in the heart aren’t getting as much oxygen rich blood as they should.
Foetal echocardiograms are used to help identify heart defects before a child is born.
This is sometimes called a bubble study.
A bubble echo involves performing an echo in the usual way whilst a small amount of salt water (saline) is injected into your bloodstream, 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. It may be carried out after a stroke or TIA, or after complex heart surgery.
The test is quick and painless, and the bubbles are harmless.
Want to find out more?
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.