Why would I need a heart ultrasound?

For symptoms like shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or chest pain, your doctor might request a heart ultrasound to help find the cause for your concerns. Also known as an echocardiogram or ECHO, this type of medical imaging uses a wand-like transducer, or probe, that emits high-frequency sound waves to create an image of your heart.

Your image will show the shape and movement of your heart valves, as well as the size of your heart chambers and how well they are working. It can help investigate your clinical symptoms and assess heart conditions, such as murmurs or damage to the heart due to prior heart attack or infection.

A heart ultrasound is a non-invasive way to get a look at how well the heart is working. It can be used on its own or in conjunction with an exercise stress test. During an exercise stress test, you are connected to a monitor and your blood pressure and heart rate are observed as you exercise on a treadmill. By monitoring and recording changes in heart rate and blood pressure, this test can indicate if parts of the heart have inadequate blood supply and evaluate how well your heart performs under stress, which is an important indicator of heart health.

This exam may also be ordered along with myocardial perfusion imaging (MPI), or a nuclear stress test, in which a radioactive material (radiopharmaceutical) is injected intravenously and you are monitored to see how well it is taken up by your heart muscle as it flows through the heart arteries at rest and during exercise.

An echocardiogram is most often ordered in cases with symptoms, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or other high risk factors for heart disease. If you have a family history of heart disease, it’s important to talk with your health care practitioner about your heart health, including how to monitor it or address any other risk factors that can be changed.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING AN ECHOCARDIOGRAM?

During an echocardiogram your chest area will need to be bare, so you will be asked to change into a gown and lie down on an examination bed. A registered cardiac sonographer will apply small electrocardiograph patches and a scentless, hypoallergenic ultrasound gel to your chest.

Your sonographer will move the transducer across your chest and a computer will convert echoes from sound waves into pictures of your heart onto a screen. You will be asked to change positions from your back to your side to view the heart from different angles, and you may experience some pressure from the transducer in order to optimize the images.

Throughout the exam, you will hear noises that may sound like your heartbeat, although it's not your heart beating you will hear. This Doppler sound is assessing the movement of blood through the heart chambers and valves.

After your exam is complete, your results will be interpreted by a radiologist and your health care practitioner will receive a comprehensive report within a few days of your exam. Your doctor will then be able to review your results with you, along with the results of any other test you may have undergone, and determine the next steps in your health care treatment plan.

For information about what happens during an exercise stress test or MPI, please read this article.

HOW DO I GET AN ECHOCARDIOGRAM?

To determine whether this exam is appropriate for you, you will need to discuss your symptoms and medical history with your health care practitioner, who would then provide you with a requisition for this procedure if it’s indicated. You can then call to book an appointment with our contact centre who will explain how to prepare for your exam.

Please visit our services page, for more information about what happens during this exam and how to prepare.


REFERENCES

American College of Cardiology (2013) “Echocardiograms Unnecessary for the General Population.” www.cardiosmart.org. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Choosing Wisely Canada (2019) “Echocardiogram Before Surgery: When you need it and when you don’t.” www.choosingwiselycanada.org. Accessed May 24, 2019.

Heart and Stroke Foundation (2019) “Echocardiogram.” www.heartandstroke.ca. Accessed May 24, 2019.

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