A heart ultrasound scan can help diagnose many heart-related conditions. Here’s what to know before your next echocardiogram appointment.
Chest pain, breathing problems, sudden dizziness or fatigue can sometimes be symptoms of a heart problem. If you experience these symptoms, especially if cardiac issues run in your family health history, you may be referred for a heart ultrasound. The real-time images from an ultrasound can help your doctor assess your heart health and function.
Ultrasounds are safe, non-invasive scans. If you’re feeling apprehensive about the procedure, this article will break down:
- What a heart ultrasound scan is and how it works
- Why you might need a heart ultrasound
- What a heart ultrasound might show
- The different types of heart ultrasound methods
- What to expect during your appointment
- How to access your heart ultrasound results
What is a heart ultrasound scan and how does it work?
An ultrasound is a safe and low-risk imaging technique that uses sound waves to examine and create images of the internal structures of your body. A heart ultrasound is also called an echocardiogram.
Your ultrasound technician, or sonographer, uses a hand-held instrument called a transducer to transmit very high-frequency sound waves. When the technician runs the transducer through a sound-conducting gel on your skin, the sound waves bounce off your internal tissues and send back echoes which are compiled into images you can see live in real time.
What is the difference between an echocardiogram and an electrocardiogram?
An electrocardiogram is another type of test used to assess heart health. Though they sound similar, they serve two different functions.
- An echocardiogram creates images of your heart’s structures and internal workings.
- An electrocardiogram (EKG) examines your heart’s rhythm and electrical activity.
These two non-invasive tests are often used together. An EKG is the most common heart screening test and is often performed first to assess any irregularities that could be associated with heart disease. However, an EKG cannot assess the heart’s pumping ability, an echocardiogram is often recommended next if more detail is required.
Why would a doctor order a heart ultrasound scan?
Your heart health is vitally important. An echocardiogram can help your physician detect, diagnose or eliminate many cardiac ailments and conditions. You might be referred for a heart ultrasound for any of the following reasons:
- Arrhythmia from an abnormally fast or slow heartbeat
- To assess your heart after a cardiac incident
- Breathlessness with no other apparent cause
- Chest pain or persistent discomfort
- Cyanosis which causes blue fingernails, lips and/or skin
- Dizziness or faintness
- Edema due to sudden swelling from excessive fluid build-up
- Fatigue or exhaustion with no explanation
You also might have an echocardiogram to check your heart health as part of a larger overall healthcare routine.
What can a heart ultrasound scan show?
Depending on your circumstances and symptoms, a heart ultrasound might show signs that you have had a cardiac event, or evidence of other cardiac conditions, including:
- Atherosclerosis: a gradual blockage of the arteries
- Aneurysm: a weak spot in the heart or coronary arteries
- Cardiomyopathy: a thick or weak heart muscle which causes the heart to become enlarged
- Congenital heart disease: defects in the structure of the heart that occur during fetal development
- Defects: in the heart walls or blood vessels
- Endocarditis: an infection in the endocardium (i.e., the inner lining of the heart)
- Heart attack damage: specifically where the supply of blood was suddenly blocked to the heart
- Heart failure: a weakened heart which doesn’t properly pump blood)
- Heart murmur: an extra sound heard during a heartbeat (e.g., a ‘woosh’ or ‘swoosh’)
- Heart valve issues: like weakness, damage or irregularity
- Muscle impairment: including weakness or damage from a heart attack
- Pericarditis: swelling or irritation of the pericardium (i.e., the membrane around the heart)
- Tumors: inside the heart’s chambers or muscle, or on its surface
Understanding the types of echocardiograms
There are several types of echocardiograms, depending on your particular health situation and needs:
- Transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE): This is the most common type of heart ultrasound, in which the sonographer runs the transducer through a conductive gel spread on the skin above where your heart is located.
- Stress echocardiogram: This is also a TTE, but it happens after you have had a period of intense exercise or an injection of a heart rate-increasing medication.
- Transesophageal echocardiogram (TOE): This is an internal ultrasound, in which a small tube is sent down your throat and the ultrasound is taken from inside the body.
- Fetal echocardiogram: You may require a fetal echocardiogram while pregnant, to ensure the fetus has no cardiac abnormalities. Often performed transabdominally (on the surface of the stomach), the scan might also be taken transvaginally, in which the transducer is coated in gel and then inserted into the vagina.
Your specific circumstances may also require the use of a contrast agent in your echocardiogram. The contrast, which is injected into your blood, shows up very clearly in the scan and can help generate better, sharper images of your heart.
Echocardiograms can be administered by several different methods, including:
- M-mode: This provides a very simple, monodimensional view of the heart, displayed along a single line. M-mode is sometimes used to view or measure heart structures.
- 2D/3D: 2D ultrasounds show both the structures of your heart (chambers, valves, walls, major blood vessels, etc.) and also their motion in real-time. Some imaging clinics offer 3D echocardiograms, which can provide more detail.
- Doppler: a Doppler ultrasound measures how blood flows through your arteries as well as your heart’s chambers and valves. The amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat can indicate whether or not there is any abnormality.
- Color flow imaging: An embellished form of a Doppler ultrasound, color flow imaging assigns different colors to each direction of blood flow. It makes the Doppler results simpler to see.
What to expect during a heart ultrasound scan appointment
The heart ultrasound process will differ a little depending on the type you have. For each type, you’ll have to remove the top half of your clothing, and several electrodes may be attached to the skin of your chest. You’ll be asked to lie on your left side.
- For a TTE, the technician will spread the gel on your skin, and then run the transducer through it. You won’t hear the high-frequency sound waves, and the procedure is painless.
- If you’re having a stress echocardiogram, your electrodes will be hooked up to a monitor and you’ll be asked to exercise vigorously on a treadmill or exercise bike before your scan. If you can’t exercise, you’ll be injected with a medication that will make your heart work harder, which sometimes causes a sensation of internal warmth.
- If you’re having a TOE, you’ll be asked not to eat or drink for several hours before your scan, and you might be given sedative medication to help you relax.
Heart ultrasound appointments generally take between 30-60 minutes. There are a few things you can do to prepare:
- Check with the imaging clinic ahead of time in case you need to fast for several hours before your scan.
- Bring your requisition with you, as it has valuable information for the clinic staff about what type of echocardiogram you need.
- Wear clothing you can easily get in and out of. You’ll need to remove all clothing from your upper body. However, if you’re having a stress echocardiogram, wear clothes you can comfortably exercise in such as a sports bra.
Questions to ask during a heart ultrasound scan
The sonographer won’t answer questions about the content or results of your heart ultrasound, but you can ask questions about the procedure and process, such as:
- How long will this appointment take?
- How do you share my results?
- When will my doctor receive the images and report?
- How can I access the images and report?
Questions to ask during your follow-up appointment
Your ultrasound technician is not legally allowed to discuss your results with you. Instead, they’ll send the images to a radiologist for interpretation, and the radiologist will forward the images and a report to your physician. Once received, your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment with you to go over your results.
During that appointment, you’ll likely want to ask your doctor several follow-up questions, like:
- Did the echocardiogram show anything unusual?
- What caused the problem? How mild or severe is it?
- Do I need any further imaging or other testing?
- Should I make lifestyle changes?
- What is the best course of treatment?
How do I access my heart ultrasound scan results?
When it comes to your heart, it’s important to access your results as quickly as possible so you can strategize your next steps.
PocketHealth is a safe, secure platform through which you can access, better understand, store and share your medical information and images. You can see your heart ultrasound images and report as soon as they become available, often before your follow-up appointment.
Echocardiogram reports can be full of complex medical terminology. PocketHeath’s Report Reader provides you with definitions of medical terms so you can thoroughly understand your results. Report Reader also spotlights follow-up recommendations, so you’ll be informed and up-to-date when you meet with your doctor to discuss your results. Access your records today.
Take control of your heart health
Taking care of your heart is the utmost priority. An echocardiogram can help your doctor detect and diagnose heart ailments and conditions. Having early access to your heart ultrasound results gives you the information you need to have better, more focused conversations with your whole healthcare team.
PocketHealth gives you rapid and secure access to your medical images and information, so you can be prepared and fully in control of your own heart health.
How PocketHealth works
Learn more about how to use PocketHealth to access and share your heart ultrasound results.