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All About Echocardiography

By: Jo Johnson - Updated: 16 May 2013 | comments*Discuss
Echocardiogram Echocardiography

An echocardiogram is a method used to look at the heart and its structures. It is based on an ultrasound scan and allows practitioners to make a closer examination of the inside of the heart, including the chambers and valves. Using highly technical equipment, high frequencies are passed through the tissues to allow for an ultrasound image to be transmitted to a screen and the working heart can be seen as a 2 dimensional image.

Why Do I Need an Echocardiogram?

Most people who have been asked to attend an appointment for an echocardiogram will have been referred by their GP who suspects a diagnosis of heart disease. It can measure the size and shape of the heart, allow visualisation of any abnormalities and measures its overall strength and function.

This type of scan is also very useful in diagnosing heart conditions in the newborn infant as it is not invasive and does not cause pain. Scans taken via the external chest wall also need little co-operation as long as the patient remains still.

Using the ultrasound scanning technique, the valves can be seen in great detail, and allows the specialist to see if there are any problems with the flow of blood through the chambers and valves of the heart.

Types of Echocardiography

There are two main approaches used to carry out an echocardiogram, transthoracic and transoesophageal.

Transthoracic Approach

This involves the placement of an ultrasound probe directly onto the external chest wall. This approach is totally painless and non-invasive. It is the usual method of achieving echocardiography and is used to make a fast and precise examination of the overall function of the heart.

Transoesophageal Approach

Slightly more invasive, this requires the passing of a very small probe into the oesophagus in order to achieve a more detailed look at the heart including the valves and the side of the heart facing away from the chest wall.

Many practitioners will often try and examine the heart using the transthoracic approach initially, but if the valves cannot be seen or other structures are obstructing the view, they will often proceed to the transoesophageal approach.

What To Expect

The test will be performed by either a trained sonographer or by the cardiologist themselves, depending on the facilities offered by the hospital and whether the use of sedation is needed, such as with a transoesophageal echo.

Both types of procedure should be painless, though a tranoesophageal scan does carry some discomfort. Nerves and discomfort are usually alleviated by the use of sedation and local anaesthetic throat spray, if the patient requires it.Before the probe can be placed on the chest wall, a jelly-like substance will usually be applied to the area, which is useful for transmitting clearer images.

The actual scans should take no longer than ten or fifteen minutes and are very important to allow the specialist to make an accurate diagnosis and plan an appropriate treatment schedule.

Ultrasound scanning techniques have proved to be extremely valuable in modern medicine, allowing doctors to make exact diagnoses without the need of risky surgical techniques. When diagnosing and treating diseases of the heart and vascular system, it has proven to revolutionise the way in which heart disease patients are managed and allows them a more positive outlook as diagnosis can be made early and treatment plans designed in line with the individual patient’s needs.

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