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An echocardiogram is a test of heart structure and movement using sound waves. Find out how it's done and what it tells your doctor.

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picture of machine Echocardiogram

An echocardiogram is an imaging test that uses ultrasound - or sound waves - to create images of the heart. This test can tell your doctor how well your heart is working by relaying images of the heart chambers, heart muscle, and heart valves.

A type of echo called Doppler ultrasound is used to measure blood flow through the heart and detect abnormalities in heart motion.

Why is this test done?
An echocardiogram may be done to check the structure and function of the heart valves. It can show the size and pumping ability of the heart chambers. An echocardiogram can detect a blood clot inside the heart, congenital heart defects or tumors within the heart chambers. It can also identify fluid buildup within a sac called the pericardium that covers the heart. In people with heart failure, echocardiogram is used to calculate ejection fraction, a measure of how well the heart can pump blood to the body.

What this test involves
An echocardiogram can be done in a doctor's office or at the hospital. You will sit in a reclining position or lie down with your chest exposed. Women wear a gown or a drape. Gel is applied to the end of a transducer, a small cylinder device that transmits and receives sound waves. The gel helps transmit the ultrasound images. The technician will move the transducer to various sites on your chest wall. The pictures of the heart are displayed on a screen, recorded and sent to your doctor. The entire test takes 30 to 90 minutes. It requires no special preparation or aftercare.

What are the risks for this test?
An echocardiogram is a noninvasive test. It's painless and there are no risks.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 08/25/2008
Updated on 02/23/2011
  • Grimm RA, Thomas JD. Transthoracic echocardiography. In:Topol EJ, Califf RM, eds. Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007.
  • National Heart Lung Blood Institute. Echocardiography.
  • American Society of Echocardiography. Heart ultrasound.
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