Echocardiography is a non-invasive technique to look at the structure and function of the heart. An ultrasound probe sends high frequency sound waves to 'bounce off' the heart and blood vessels, and create an 'echo' that is received by the probe and integrated into a moving picture. Movement of the blood can also be detected, which is very useful for looking at heart valves and congenital heart problems, such as holes in the heart.
An echo is often performed in people with heart murmurs, shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, dizzy spells, ankle swelling, fatigue, fainting attacks, or a family history of heart problems.
The echo procedure
An ultrasound probe coated with a gel is applied to the chest wall with gentle pressure by a specialised echo technician. The heart is examined from different positions on the chest, upper abdomen and neck in order to see all parts of the heart from different angles. The procedure takes 20-30 minutes, and is not painful. No special preparation is required.
After the test
The images recorded by the technician will be analysed by a cardiologist who has special expertise in interpreting echocardiograms. A report is then created summarising the findings, and recommending further investigation or treatment, if appropriate. This is sent to the patient's GP, the referring cardiologist, and the patient.