The echocardiogram is a fundamental diagnostic test because it offers a moving image of the heart. Through ultrasound, echocardiography provides information about the shape, size, function, strength of the heart, movement and thickness of its walls, and the function of its valves. In addition, it can provide information on the pulmonary circulation and its pressures, the initial portion of the aorta, and see if there is fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion).
Thanks to the use of ultrasound to obtain images, the echocardiogram is a test that does not irradiate the patient (as other tests such as X-rays, CT, etc. can do). Other advantages it provides is that it is not a painful test nor does it produce any side effects.
The echocardiogram is obtained through a device called an echocardiograph. This device consists of 3 basic elements:
- Transducer: device through which images of the heart can be captured
- Screen: in which the images captured by the transducer are collected
In addition, electrodes are usually placed on the patient’s chest to obtain an electrocardiogram at the same time that the echocardiography is performed, since it provides information for the specialist.
Echocardiogram images can be obtained in different modes:
- M-mode or one-dimensional: a narrow portion of the heart is detected.
- Two-dimensional or 2D: Provides a picture of the heart’s anatomy (allows you to see the different structures) during movement.
- Color Doppler: allows to see the flow of blood in the heart and arteries and to measure it.
- 3D: the images that are obtained are in 3 dimensions. A 3D image is created from multiple 2-dimensional images.
There are other modes that are very useful in echocardiography: pulsed Doppler, continuous Doppler, etc.
The most frequently performed echocardiogram is the transthoracic echocardiogram, that is, when the transducer is placed on the patient’s chest.
How the echocardiogram is performed
A conductive gel is applied either to the patient’s chest or directly to the transducer. The transducer is placed on the patient’s chest, usually on the left side of the patient. The cardiologist will move the transducer across the patient’s chest to obtain different images. The test usually takes between 15 and 30 minutes, although it can sometimes take longer.
The patient remains lying down and as calm as possible, without requiring any type of special preparation prior to carrying out the test or going fasting. An echocardiogram is not painful (you may feel slight pressure through the transducer) and does not have any side effects.
It can be perfectly performed on pregnant women without any harm to the baby, since it is a test that does not emit radiation. During the study, you may hear some noise that corresponds to the speed of the blood inside the heart.