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What Is an Echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram, or echo, is a test that helps doctors check on your heart health. The test, which is a kind of ultrasound, uses harmless sound waves to create a real-time moving picture of your heart that shows how well it’s functioning. 

What Does an Echocardiogram Show?  

An echocardiogram can show:

  • your heart and valve function,
  • the thickness of your heart,
  • a weak heart,
  • blood clots in your heart,
  • fluid around your heart,
  • why you may have swelling in your body, and
  • the state of your heart health before and after surgery.

Why Choose University Of Utah Health?

As an academic health center, we have access to cutting-edge technologies and echocardiogram machines. We use the most up-to-date software to efficiently and quickly assess your heart function. Our highly trained cardiac sonographers work closely with physicians to achieve the best outcome for your health. 

Our Clinics

Echocardiogram machines are available at all U of U Health clinics throughout the region, which allows you to complete the test close to home. Your doctor will decide where it may be best for you to receive an echo depending on your unique circumstances and health care needs.

Types Of Echocardiograms

The kind of echocardiogram you receive will depend on what your doctor needs to understand about your heart health. A sonographer will complete the test and report the findings to your doctor.

  • Transthoracic Echocardiogram (TTE) — During this noninvasive test, your sonographer will move a probe (called a transducer) over your skin. That information will be relayed back to our machines to help doctors understand how well your heart is working. A TTE is the most common type of echocardiogram.    
  • Stress Echocardiogram — Your sonographer will take images of your heart before and after you use a treadmill or ride an exercise bike to elevate your heart rate. If exercise is not possible or appropriate for you, we will give you medicine to slowly but temporarily increase your heart rate. Your sonographer will take several sets of images at different stages to see how well your heart is squeezing and functioning.   
  • Transesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE) — You will be partially sedated in a calm, relaxed state for this test. A flexible tube will be inserted into your throat to allow your cardiologist to see the smaller structures of your heart in more detail. 

Echocardiogram Vs. Ekg (Electrocardiogram)

Despite their similar names, these are two very different tests. An EKG (an electrocardiogram) uses electrical signals to measure your heart rate and rhythm. During an echocardiogram, the computer translates sound waves into a visual picture of your heart. This will show your doctor how well your heart squeezes and relaxes and how well your valves function.

Who Needs To Get An Echocardiogram?

Your doctor will determine whether an echocardiogram is needed to better understand your health. You may need an echocardiogram if:

  • you are receiving another medical procedure.
  • you have a family history of heart disease.
  • you are receiving chemotherapy and doctors want to check your heart health during stages of the treatment.
  • you have been hurt in an accident.
  • you are experiencing physical symptoms such as swelling or chest pain that may indicate a heart problem.

Echocardiogram Preparation

The amount of preparation depends on what kind of echo you are receiving.

Transthoracic echocardiograms do not require any preparation. However, before you have a stress echocardiogram, you should stop eating solid food four hours before the test. You can drink clear liquids up until one hour before.  Your physician will let you know if you also need to stop taking any medication prior to the test.

To prepare for a transesophageal echocardiogram, you will need to stop eating and drinking (even clear liquids) at least six hours before the test. We often recommend patients stop eating and drinking by midnight the night before the exam. 

You may also be asked to hold off on some of your medications for a certain amount of time before your stress echo. This information will be given to you by your physician and/or the scheduler.

Echocardiogram Procedure: What To Expect

An echocardiogram is performed as an inpatient or outpatient procedure. Only a small number of patients are admitted to the hospital based on their test results. 

Transthoracic Echocardiograms & Stress Echocardiograms

You will need to remove your clothes from the waist up and dress in a hospital gown. You will be covered during the exam. Before the exam begins, your blood pressure will be checked. You will lie on your left side with a pillow under your head and a pillow behind your back for support. We often see patients fall asleep during this procedure because the room is warm and dark.

During the test, your sonographer will:

  • place special stickers (electrodes) your chest.
  • apply warm gel to the probe (thin, flexible tube) and move the probe around multiple areas of your chest.
  • examine your heart from different angles and assess your valves and chambers. 

Transesophageal Echocardiograms

You will also need to remove your clothes from the waist up and dress in a hospital gown. You will be covered during the exam. The exam will take place while you're partially sitting up on your back. A cardiac nurse will give you medication to partially sedate you and help you relax.

During the test, your sonographer will:

  • place special stickers (electrodes) on your chest to monitor your blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen level.
  • guide a skinny, snake-like probe with a camera on the tip down your esophagus.
  • examine your heart’s valves and chambers. 

Echo Enhancer

In many cases, the sonographer may have trouble seeing some aspects of your heart during the test. This does not necessarily mean anything is wrong. In order to see your heart and provide the cardiologist with all the appropriate information, the sonographer may want to use an echo enhancer during the test.                               

An echo enhancer is made of tiny gas spheres with a lipid or fat shell. We will insert the fluid into your vein through a thin tube. The ultrasound waves will bounce off the spheres to provide a more detailed picture of your heart function. Most patients do not feel any differently after receiving the echo enhancer. Mild or severe reactions to the echo enhancer are extremely rare.

After the Procedure

You'll typically have no restrictions on activities or eating after your transthoracic or stress echocardiogram.

However, you will be monitored until the sedative wears off after undergoing a transesophageal echocardiogram. The numbness in your throat will wear off in typically less than an hour, but you may have a sore throat for two to three days. You will be able to eat and drink normally after the procedure. 

How Long Does An Echocardiogram Take?

  • A transthoracic echocardiogram takes about 45 minutes.
  • A transesophageal echocardiogram can take between one and one and a half hours, including preparation and recovery.
  • A stress echocardiogram takes about an hour. If you receive medication to slowly and temporarily increase your heart rate, the test will last slightly longer.

How Long Does It Take To Get The Results Of An Echocardiogram?

A cardiologist will read the results of your echocardiogram within 24 hours of the test. You should expect to get your results from your provider within three days.

If a sonographer sees anything of immediate concern during the procedure, you will be asked to stay while a cardiologist looks at the echocardiogram results.

How To Schedule An Echocardiogram

Your physician must put in an order for an echocardiogram. Once that’s complete, you should call U of U Health at 801-585-2905 to schedule your test.