Echocardiography (heart ultrasound) was introduced into medical practice in the 1960s as the noninvasive benchmark in the evaluation of cardiac structure and function. It has been the most widely used diagnostic test for heart disease for almost 50 years. It has gained such wide acceptance and popularity because of its relative simplicity, noninvasive nature, painless characteristics and absence of any radiation exposure. There is no need for administration of sedatives, and the procedure is performed while the patient lies on a comfortable table. Test information is immediately available, and the analysis of these test results can be relayed immediately to the patient and the referring physician.

The procedure is performed by a qualified cardiac professional, who is called a sonographer. A hand-held transducer is used to send and receive ultrasound signals. You will be asked to disrobe from the waist up, be given a gown, and asked to lay on an examination table on your back. Electrodes will be placed on your chest to allow for an electrocardiogram to be performed. A small amount of gel is used on the end of the transducer to aid in ultrasound transmission and to help the device glide over the skin. The transducer sends out high-frequency sound waves, which detect the heart structures and are reflected backward towards the transducer. The transducer captures this information (echoes), and sends it to the ultrasound machine, which processes the signals and displays them visually on a video screen. This is a painless acquisition of information, and most people feel only the presence of the gel on the skin, and some gentle pressure from the transducer, as it is being applied to the chest wall in order to obtain the images.

Frequently Asked Questions

How safe is this technology?

There are no known risks associated with this test. Because only ultrasound is used to obtain the images, there is no exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals. In general, there is no need to establish intravenous access for administration of any medication. Occasionally, because your lungs, ribs or body tissue may prevent the sound waves and echoes from providing a clear picture of heart function, a physician may administer a small amount of contrast through an IV line to better see the inside of the heart (contrast echocardiography). Situations where this may occur include patients who are very obese, have severe underlying pulmonary disease (emphysema) or have an anatomically large “barrel chest.”

How do I prepare for an echocardiogram?

There is no special preparation required for this test. You may eat and drink as you normally do. You should also take your medications as prescribed. The test will take approximately one hour.

What should I expect?

Upon arrival to the laboratory, you will be asked to register. You will also be asked to provide your insurance information, your referring physician’s name and a written prescription from your doctor requesting the examination. You will then be escorted to the ultrasound room for the procedure. You may be asked a few questions by the sonographer who will want to know why you are having the test and if you have had a previous echocardiogram. The images and sounds obtained from the examination will be recorded on a computer disk for later review. The test usually takes one hour.

What happens after the exam?

After all the recordings and measurements are completed, the EKG electrodes will be removed, and you will get dressed in the privacy of the echo lab. You will be escorted to the front office desk for any further instructions. The ultrasound study will then be submitted to the reading Cardiologist for review and interpretation. A written report will be sent to your physician within 3 working days. You should contact your physician at that time to discuss the results and recommendations.