An Echocardiogram is a test used to look at the structure and function of the heart. It uses ultrasound waves to display a moving image of the heart, similar to that used to look at unborn babies.

The ultrasound waves emitted are of a very high frequency and cannot be heard by human ears. The waves are bounced back to the machine by the structures they come into contact with. Denser structures (such as the heart valves) echo more waves back then less dense materials and fluids. This helps to build-up a picture of the heart. It is also possible to see the heart moving as the image is constantly updated.

Echocardiograms are used to look at the heart to check the way it is working and that it is not damaged. It can be used to look at the heart's muscle tissue, the chambers of the heart and also the valves which control the blood flow into and out of the heart.

An 'Echo' may be used after a heart attack to see how much damage has occurred, and also if a heart condition is suspected.

Echocardiograms can be used in adults, children and babies. They can also be performed on unborn babies. This is called a fetal echocardiogram.

What Happens During An Echocardiogram?

Echocardiograms take place in a hospital. You will not need to do anything special to prepare for your echo.

In the appointment, the patient is asked to undress down to their waist. Lubricating jelly is used on the chest, so that the ultrasound probe glides smoothly and makes good contact with the skin. The probe is attached via a wire to the ultrasound machine and the waves are passed down and fed back to the machine this way.

The test will take up to half an hour and is completely painless and carries no risks to the patient.

In a few cases, the consultant may wish to look at the heart during exercise. This is known as a stress echocardiogram. If a very detailed view of the heart is required, then a Transoesophageal echocardiogram may be used. This involves the patient swallowing a small probe attached to a long wire so that the heart can be viewed from within the oesophagus.

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