Echocardiogram: What to Expect from An Echo Test

Medically Reviewed By Uzochukwu Ibe, MD, MPH
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An echocardiogram, or echo, is a type of ultrasound or sonogram imaging test that translates sound wave echoes into moving images of your heart. Your doctor may use an echocardiogram to look at your heart’s size and structure and to see how well it pumps blood. An echocardiogram evaluates many problems, including heart murmurs, heart failure, and heart valve disease. A doctor may order several types of echocardiogram procedures if you experience symptoms that suggest a heart function problem.

Read on to find out more about the types of echocardiograms. This article also looks at when you might need an echo heart test and what it can help with diagnosing, as well as what to expect during the procedure.

What are the types of echocardiograms?

A closeup of a physician's hands touching an echocardiogram machine
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There are several types of echocardiograms, including:

  • standard transthoracic echocardiogram
  • stress echocardiogram
  • transesophageal echocardiogram
  • doppler echocardiogram

Standard transthoracic echocardiogram

Standard transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE) is the most common type of echocardiogram.

TTE makes moving pictures of your heart while you are at rest. It uses a painless, wand-like instrument called a “transducer” that your doctor passes over your chest.

Stress echocardiogram

Stress echocardiogram involves performing an echocardiogram during a cardiac stress test. A cardiac stress test shows how exercising on a treadmill affects your heart.

If you are unable to perform a physical stress test, your doctor may give you medication to mimic the effect of exercise on the heart.

Learn more about stress echocardiograms.

Transesophageal echocardiogram

Transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) involves passing a special, much smaller transducer down your throat to take moving pictures of your heart.

TEE produces clearer pictures than other types of echocardiograms.

Learn more about TEE.

Doppler echocardiogram

Doppler echocardiogram uses a Doppler to record the flow of blood through the heart.

A Doppler echocardiogram can also detect unusual blood flow in the heart. This can help indicate whether there is a problem with the heart’s valves or walls.

Learn more about Doppler ultrasounds.

Why might you need an echocardiogram?

Your doctor might order an echocardiogram if you have symptoms that indicate a heart condition.

Symptoms can include:

Contact your doctor if you frequently or persistently experience any of these symptoms.

Learn about the symptoms of heart disease.

What does an echocardiogram show?

An echocardiogram can provide information about your heart health. Your doctor may order the test to see whether there are problems with blood flow or the function of your heart.

An echocardiogram cannot diagnose all types of heart conditions or predict future heart problems. Doctors use echocardiograms to help diagnose, determine the severity of, or monitor the treatment of heart conditions.

Possible heart conditions that an echocardiogram can help detect or monitor include:

Your doctor may also use an echocardiogram to look for blood clots inside the heart.

Learn more about heart conditions.

Who performs an echocardiogram?

A specially trained cardiovascular radiologic technologist, or sonographer, generally performs an echocardiogram. Radiologic technologists are trained in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures.

A physician may supervise the sonographer.

How do I prepare for an echocardiogram?

You will not usually have to do anything specific to prepare for an echocardiogram unless your doctor has ordered TEE.

If your doctor has ordered TEE, they may ask that you not eat or drink for around 4–6 hours beforehand. You should also arrange for someone to take you home after the procedure because you may need a sedative to help you to stay calm.

Asking your doctor questions about your echocardiogram beforehand can help you to feel more prepared and know what to expect on the day.

What happens during an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram generally includes these steps:

  • You will remove clothing from your chest and put on a patient gown and relax on a table. The room will be dark, so the images are easier to see on the ultrasound screen.
  • The sonographer will attach sticky, painless electrodes to your chest if you have an EKG with your echocardiogram.
  • Your sonographer will then apply gel to your chest to help the transducer slide across your skin.
  • Your sonographer will move the transducer to various places on your chest and ribs to take pictures of areas of the heart. You may have to shift your position, breathe slowly, and hold your breath for short periods to help make clearer pictures.
  • Your technologist watches the echocardiogram screen during the procedure. This ensures that the right type and number of images are captured.

Transesophageal echocardiogram

TEE involves numbing your throat with an anesthetic and giving you medication to help you relax before the test.

Your sonographer gently passes a TEE probe with a transducer down your throat into your esophagus to make clearer moving images of the heart.

Stress echocardiogram

Stress echocardiogram involves performing an echocardiogram before and during a cardiac stress test. A stress test involves walking on a treadmill.

If you are unable to walk on a treadmill, your doctor may give you medication instead to mirror the effects of exercise on the heart.

How long does an echocardiogram take?

An echocardiogram typically takes 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the type of echocardiogram.

Your doctor or sonographer can provide you with more accurate information about how long they expect your echocardiogram to take.

What happens after an echocardiogram?

After your echocardiogram, your sonographer will help you clean the gel from your chest.

Your doctor will then look closely at the echo pictures and discuss with you what they show.

What do my echocardiogram results mean?

Your doctor will discuss your echocardiogram results with you. Sometimes this can happen soon after the echocardiogram, but you may need to make an appointment with your doctor.

If the echo pictures show there is a problem with the function of your heart, your doctor may order tests. They may also be able to advise on treatments if the echocardiogram has helped to confirm a diagnosis.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor if you are booked in for an echocardiogram and you have questions about the procedure. Being as informed as possible about what to expect can help make you feel more at ease.

Are there any risks with an echocardiogram?

There are no known risks of most types of echocardiograms.

However, if you have TEE, you may experience difficulties swallowing for a few hours afterward and a sore throat for around 1–2 days. Contact your doctor if you experience a sore throat that persists after this time.

Echocardiogram vs. EKG

Both an echocardiogram and an electrocardiogram (EKG) can be used to help identify heart conditions.

An echocardiogram is an imaging test that uses sound wave echoes to create moving images of your heart.

An EKG measures electrical signals in your heart. Your doctor will place electrodes on your chest that are attached to a computer via wires.

An EKG is usually quicker than an echocardiogram. It takes around 3 minutes. In some cases, your doctor may monitor your heart with an EKG while you have an echocardiogram.

Summary

An echocardiogram is a type of imaging test that your doctor may order if you have symptoms that suggest a heart problem. It translates sound wave echoes into moving images to provide a detailed look at your heart health.

An echocardiogram can take 15–60 minutes. Some echocardiograms, such as TEE, may take longer as you need to do more to prepare for the test.

Contact your doctor if you are due to have an echocardiogram and you have questions about the test. They can answer any questions so that you can feel as informed as possible about what to expect before, during, and after the test.

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Medical Reviewer: Uzochukwu Ibe, MD, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 31
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