What is an Echocardiogram (ECHO)?

An echocardiogram is a scan of heart using ultrasound waves, similar to those used for the scans to monitor the growth of a baby in the womb. A device called a transducer sends ultrasound waves and receives the waves back when they bounce off (echo) from the heart. It is safe and painless.

It is sometimes helpful in showing the basic structure of the heart - the ventricles as they pump blood, the valves and overall function of the heart.

It is an excellent way to see:

  • Abnormalities of the covering of the heart (pericardium)
  • Abnormalities of the heart muscle (thickness or function)
  • Changes in size of the cardiac chambers
  • Abnormalities of the heart valves
  • Effectiveness of the heart as a pump

The procedure takes 10-30 minutes depending on the findings.

The sound waves used for an echocardiogram are safe and painless.

An echocardiogram is usually performed with you lying down and at rest. However it can also be done as part of an exercise stress test. A related technique called dobutamine stress echo uses a drug called dobutamine to simulate exercise while you lie still.

A related technique, transoesophageal echo (TOE), is used to diagnose many conditions of the heart and aorta. For the TOE, a thin ultrasound probe is passed through the mouth, down the throat into the oesophagus. As it is an invasive procedure that requires sedation, TOE is more expensive and slightly more risky than traditional ECHO. However it is better at detecting infection of some heart valves, looking for blood clots in certain heart chambers, and looking for the severity of aneurysms of the aorta.

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