An echocardiogram is a very useful diagnostic test which uses ultrasound imaging to examine the heart. It is a painless and safe procedure as there are no biological effects from diagnostic ultrasound.
The test is performed by a trained technician who uses an ultrasound probe placed in various positions on the chest to obtain images of the heart. The images are displayed on a screen in real time and recorded on a DVD disk for reporting by the cardiologist.
A very large amount of information about the heart is obtained from this investigation. The test will show whether the heart has normal strength or whether it has become enlarged and /or weak from disease. Although the arteries of the heart cannot be seen directly with this technique, it will show if the heart has been previously damaged from blocked arteries. It can also be utilised as part of stress testing to assess if there is evidence of blocked arteries (see next section). The test will also show whether the heart valves are normal or diseased. It can detect disease of the outer lining of the heart. It can help in the diagnosis of some forms of lung disease. It can tell if the main blood vessel leaving the heart has become enlarged and diseased. Because the are no adverse effects from imaging it can be used repeatedly to monitor the progress of some types of heart disease – for example whether a leaky or narrowed heart valve is getting worse to the point where surgical intervention might be needed.
Because of the large amount of information that is readily obtained from the test, it is routinely used in the diagnosis, management and follow up of patients with known or suspected heart disease.
The test usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to perform.