Echocardiogram

Your doctor may suggest an echocardiogram to help with understanding issues with your heart valves or chambers. There are several types of echocardiograms that can be tailored to your specific needs.

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What is an echocardiogram? What are transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiograms?

An echocardiogram enables your doctor to see your heart beating and pumping blood in real time. It creates these moving images by sending ultrasound beams through your body with a device called a transducer. Similar to sonar, the transducer records "echoes" that bounce off denser tissue, such as heart muscle. A computer then converts the echoes into moving images.

The procedure poses very few, if any, risks.

There are several types of echocardiogram, including:

  • Transthoracic echocardiogram is the more standard type of echocardiogram. During the procedure, a technician (sonographer) spreads gel on a hand-held transducer and presses it firmly against your torso. If the echoes are blocked by ribs or lungs, your sonographer may recommend an injection of an enhancing agent to make structures show up more clearly on a monitor.
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram is used to produce more-detailed images or when a standard echocardiogram fails to produce a clear picture. During the procedure, a sonographer will numb your throat and give you a medication to help you relax. The sonographer then guides a flexible tube, which contains the transducer, down your throat into your esophagus.
  • Doppler echocardiogram is used in both transthoracic and transesophageal echocardiograms. The technique takes advantage of how sound waves change pitch when they bounce off blood cells as the cells move through the heart and blood vessels. The pitch changes are called Doppler signals, and they can help doctors understand the speed and direction of blood flowing through the heart.
  • Stress echocardiogram produces images of your heart after it’s stressed by exercise. During the procedure, you will receive a standard echocardiogram, then walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike to get your heart pumping harder. After a certain period of time, you will receive another echocardiogram so that your doctor can compare the differences between the two. (If you can't exercise, you may receive medications to make your heart pump harder.)

How long does it take to get results from an echocardiogram? What will it show?

At Mayo Clinic Healthcare, you usually receive results from your echocardiogram immediately after the scan. The test can give your cardiologist a wide range of information, including:

Changes in the size of your heart, including enlarging of the organ or thickening of its walls

Pumping strength, to see if it's pumping the proper amount of blood

Heart muscle damage caused by various conditions such as heart attack

Valve issues that are impeding blood flow

Heart defects, such as problems with the chambers, abnormal connections between the heart and major blood vessels, and complex heart defects a person is born with

Is an echocardiogram dangerous?

A standard transthoracic echocardiogram poses virtually no risks, though sometimes people feel a bit of discomfort from where the sonographer pressed the transducer to the torso. If you receive an enhancing agent, there is a very small risk of allergic reaction.

A transesophageal echocardiogram may produce a sore throat for a few hours after the procedure. It's possible for the tube with the transponder to scrape your throat, but that is rare. It's also possible for you to have a reaction to the sedation medication. Your sonographer will monitor your oxygen level during the exam to ensure no breathing problems arise.

Similar to the standard transthoracic echocardiogram, a stress echocardiogram poses virtually no risks from the echocardiogram itself. However, putting the heart under stress through exercise or medication may cause a temporary irregular heartbeat in some people. Serious complications, such as a heart attack, are rare.

How do I prepare for an echocardiogram?

A standard transthoracic echocardiogram requires no special preparations, so you can eat, drink and take medications as normal. However, a transesophageal echocardiogram requires fasting for several hours beforehand. Also, you won't be able to drive after a transesophageal echocardiogram because of the sedation medication.

Learn more about echocardiograms on MayoClinic.org.