Echocardiography (echo) is painless and usually takes less than an hour to do. For some types of echo, your doctor will need to inject saline or a special dye into one of your veins to make your heart show up more clearly on the test images. This special dye is different from the dye used during angiography (a test used to examine the body's blood vessels).
For most types of echo, you'll be asked to remove your clothing from the waist up. Women will be given a gown to wear during the test. You'll lay on your back or left side on an exam table or stretcher.
Soft, sticky patches called electrodes will be attached to your chest to allow an EKG (electrocardiogram) to be done. An EKG is a test that records the heart's electrical activity.
A doctor or sonographer (a person specially trained to do ultrasounds) will apply gel to your chest. The gel helps the sound waves reach your heart. A wand-like device called a transducer will then be moved around on your chest.
The transducer transmits ultrasound waves into your chest. Echoes from the sound waves will be converted into pictures of your heart on a computer screen. During the test, the lights in the room will be dimmed so the computer screen is easier to see.
The illustration shows a patient having an echocardiography. The patient lies on his left side. A sonographer moves the transducer on the patient’s chest, while viewing the pictures from the echocardiography on a computer.
The sonographer will make several recordings of the pictures to show various locations in your heart. The recordings will be put on a computer disc or videotape for the cardiologist (heart specialist) to review.
During the test, you may be asked to change positions or hold your breath for a short time so that the sonographer can get good pictures of your heart.
At times, the sonographer may apply a bit of pressure to your chest with the transducer. This pressure can be a little uncomfortable, but it helps get the best picture of your heart. You should let the sonographer know if you feel too uncomfortable.
This process is similar for fetal echo. However, in that test the transducer is placed over the pregnant woman's belly at the location of the baby's heart.
Transesophageal echo (TEE) is used when your doctor needs a more detailed view of your heart. For example, TEE may be used to look for blood clots in your heart. A doctor, not a sonographer, performs this type of echo.
The test uses the same technology as transthoracic echo, but the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube. The tube will be guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). From this angle, your doctor can get a more detailed image of the heart and major blood vessels leading to and from the heart.
For TEE, you'll likely be given medicine to help you relax during the test. The medicine will be injected into one of your veins. Your blood pressure, the oxygen content of your blood, and other vital signs will be checked during the test. You'll be given oxygen through a tube in your nose. If you wear dentures or partials, you'll have to remove them.
The back of your mouth will be numbed with a gel or a spray so that you don't gag when the transducer is put down your throat. The tube with the transducer on the end will be gently placed in your throat and guided down until it's in place behind the heart.
The pictures of your heart are then recorded as your doctor moves ...