The heart is made up of cardiac muscles or myocardium whose function is to relax (to let blood flow in) and then contract (to pump blood out). Due to various causes, you may suffer from different types of irregularities in the movement and function of the heart. As soon as you experience symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, you should seek clinical advice from a doctor. There are advanced tests to diagnose why your heart is not functioning like it normally should.
One of the very common tests to determine abnormalities in the structure and function of the heart is echocardiography.
You might have heard about echocardiography or otherwise known as Heart Ultrasound too. Thanks to the advancement in the field of cardiology, echocardiography tests can quickly help the doctor find out what is wrong with a person’s heart. When the heart is unable to pump enough blood, it leads to heart failure and other diseases, which can be life-threatening . There are other heart diseases like valve and myocardial diseases. In all these heart problems, echocardiography is used as a crucial test by doctors to explore the anatomy of the heart and then diagnose the exact reason for a heart condition.
What is an Echocardiogram?
Also referred to as a cardiac echo test, echocardiography is a diagnostic procedure which uses ultrasound waves to create a graphical sketch of the heart’s structure and movement. The image is termed as echocardiogram.
An echocardiogram helps the doctor closely review how the heart beats and how its different sections function. Using this graphical outline, the doctor can learn about the structure of the heart in terms of shape and size. The sketch gives a clear picture of how the valves are functioning, how blood is getting into the heart and then how it is being pumped out. The cardiac echo test also lets the doctor discover whether or not arteries are doing their job properly.
Echocardiogram is conducted to examine the overall health of the heart muscle. If you have a congestive heart failure or need a thorough cardiac evaluation you will definitely need an Echocardiogram iogram done.
How Does Echocardiography Work?
Echocardiography is an advanced diagnostic method which involves sending ultrasound waves through the body using the transducer. These sound waves enter the body, go to the heart and then bounce off to return in the form of echoes. Then the technology used in the process converts the sound waves into moving images of the heart’s beating. The doctor finally examines the graphical sketch on the computer screen and tries to determine the exact cause and type of a heart disease.
Types of Echocardiography
There are multiple types of echocardiograms. The method of each echocardiography varies slightly from the other. Your doctor will suggest an echocardiogram depending on the nature of your specific heart condition.
For most patients, the doctor will recommend a transthoracic echocardiography test. In this echo test, the sonographer will place a transducer on your chest. Next, the device will send sound waves through the body to the heart. These sound waves will reach the heart and then rebound to the transducer, later converted into images. Finally, moving images of the heart as it contracts and relaxes can be evaluated for diagnosis.
If the transthoracic echocardiogram doesn’t suffice in your case, the doctor will further need you to get a transesophageal echocardiogram done for diagnosis. In this type of echocardiography, a smaller transducer is entered via the throat with the help of a thin tube. The tube passes through the esophagus and reaches the stomach – in a way that the transducer is positioned right behind the heart. The sonographer will numb your throat so that you don’t feel any trouble or pain. The images will give the doctor a definitive view of the heart’s movements to diagnose the problem. This test is usually done in a Hospital or Specialized units.
This test is similar to transthoracic echocardiography except that it’s conducted when your heart is beating at a faster rate. So, you’ll be either taken to exercise for a few minutes or administered a medication to speed up the rate of your heart beat. Often recommended when you experience a chest pain, the test aims to find out how stress affects the movements of your heart. This type of echocardiogram also helps the doctor determine the intensity of exercise that a patient can safely endure when in cardiac rehabilitation.
In this echocardiography test, a 3-D graphical outline of the heart’s movement is created using either transthoracic or transesophageal echocardiogram. Unlike other types of echocardiography, the images from this echo test give the doctor multiple views of the heart from different angles. If you are about to go for a heart valve surgery, your cardiologist will most likely recommend you to get this echocardiography test done.
This echocardiography is done to diagnose heart defects in unborn babies. If the heart problems of a baby can be detected before she or he is born, doctors can prepare in advance and manage the condition in a more effective manner. During the procedure, the sonographer simply places the transducer on the belly of the expectant mother. It’s safe for the fetus.
Expectations: How is an Echocardiogram Performed?
There’s no special preparation required for the echo test unless you are going for a transesophageal echocardiography which will require you to stop eating at least a couple of hours before the test begins.
Upon arrival at an urgent care clinic or diagnostic center, you’ll be taken in for the echo test. The sonographer will ask you to lie down on the examination table. Once you are on the table, the technician will put small disks (that connect to the echocardiography machine) on your chest. Now, a thick gel will be applied to your chest. The gel will cause a cold sensation on your skin. There’s nothing to worry about because the gel is not harmful to the skin at all.
Next, the sonographer will place the transducer on your chest. Putting gentle pressure on the transducer, sound waves will be sent to the heart. The sound waves, as they return from the heart, will be captured via the transducer and transferred to a computer which will convert the waves into images.
As the sonographer moves the transducer on your chest, they may ask you to either exhale or inhale or halt your breath for a brief moment. You’ll also be asked to remain calm and still for the procedure to complete.
After a transthoracic echocardiography test is over, you can get back to your normal life without any delay and resume your day’s work. But if the echo test is transesophageal, you’ll be asked to rest for a few hours because you’ll be under the influence of sedatives. You should start work or drive only after the effect of sedatives has gone away completely. After your echocardiogram results are in and it is found that you have a heart condition, your doctor would change your medications or may refer you to another subspecialist who specializes in the management of your specific heart disease.
How Long Does an Echocardiogram Take?
The common cardiography test takes around 30 minutes. Five minutes will be spent on helping you lie down in the correct position whereas the remaining time will be used to complete the actual procedure.
Depending on the type of your echocardiography, you may need to spend a little more time in the echo lab. However, you can expect the procedure to conclude within 40 minutes at most. You can collect the reports later and share it with your doctor and discuss your specific heart problem in detail.
What Can an Echocardiogram Detect?
The visual sketch obtained through an echocardiography test allows the doctor to take an in-depth look at the rhythm of your heart. An echocardiogram is used to detect a range of abnormalities in the structure and function of the heart. Given below are a few heart conditions an echo test can expose.
Heart Valve Problems:
The heart has four valves – mitral, tricuspid, aortic and pulmonary. The mitral valve and tricuspid valve are responsible for letting the blood flow in from the Atria into the ventricles whereas the function of the aortic valve and the pulmonary valve is to pump the blood out of the ventricles. An echocardiogram helps the doctor find out whether the heart valves are performing their functions in a correct manner or there are abnormalities like narrowing (stenosis) or Leakage (Regurgitation).
Velocity of Blood Flow:
During a heart echo test, the sonographer also uses a special device called Doppler, which can measure the speed of blood as it flows into the various sections of the heart. Abnormalities in the blood flow indicates you are suffering from a heart disease which the doctor can tell.
Congenital Heart Disease:
A congenital heart disease is a birth defect, which can be either simple or severe. Defects in the heart valves, walls and blood vessels fall into the category of congenital heart diseases. If there are anatomic defects in the structure of your heart (present from birth), an echocardiography test can help the doctor assess it in an effective manner.
Irregular Heart Rhythm:
If your heart beats are irregular, you may be suffering from a heart condition called cardiac arrhythmia. Some arrhythmias can cause serious health complications. An echocardiogram can show the doctor the pattern in which your heart beats and determine the exact cause of a heart problem. Common types of arrhythmia include tachycardia, atrial flutter, bradycardia, ventricular Tachycardia , atrial fibrillation and premature contractions among others.
An echocardiogram offers the doctor a deep insight into the structure and function of a patient’s heart. However, this heart echo test also has its limitations. For example, this test doesn’t graphically represent the condition of the coronary arteries. If there are blockages in coronary arteries, an echo test will not suffice and the doctor might suggest a cardiac catheterization for assessment.
How Much Does an Echocardiography Test Cost?
Since there are different types of echocardiography tests, the cost of the test may vary from one patient to another. On an average, the cost of an echo test (with or without Doppler) ranges between $560 and $1550.
Before you go for a heart echo test, you should get in touch with your health insurance provider and confirm the terms, as a pre-authorization may be required. The urgent care center where you want the echo test conducted can also provide you with the necessary information on this topic.
If you are going to pay for the test fully out of your own pocket, you should find out in advance how much exactly the test will cost.
Don’t Forget to Follow Up
Heart conditions vary and so it’s important to follow up with your doctor after a heart echo test has been done. Depending on the results, you may need to go for another echo test for further exploration by the doctor.
If you have a heart condition, you should visit your doctor and follow the treatment plan precisely as advised. If the doctor finds out that you have a chronic heart disease or your heart condition is life-threatening, they’ll refer you to a cardiologist. Feel free to ask the doctor any questions that you may have. Know the details of your unique case and never skip or ignore the prescribed medications. The field of cardiology is evolving more and you can be sure that there’s effective treatment available to cure any heart disease that you may be suffering from.