Cardiac ultrasound or echocardiography is a medical imaging procedure in which the goal is to generate a picture of the heart for the purpose of evaluating a heart condition or suspected heart problem. Like other types of ultrasound imaging, cardiac ultrasound is non-invasive and painless, and it can be performed as an outpatient procedure in a clinic or hospital. There are a variety of reasons for a doctor to request a cardiac ultrasound, and he or she will usually discuss the reason for the procedure with the patient at the time that the procedure is recommended.
Ultrasound imaging relies on the use of high frequency sound waves to create a picture of the inside of the body. The waves are emitted by a transducer which also picks up the waves when they bounce back, generating a picture on the basis of the way in which the sound waves change as they bounce off objects in the chest cavity. In a basic ultrasound, a flat picture of the heart is produced, and it is also possible to generate a three dimensional ultrasound image with the use of an array of transducers. Both still images and video can be captured with echocardiography.
In a cardiac ultrasound, the patient's chest will be exposed and covered in a conductive gel. The ultrasound technician or doctor will move the transducer across the chest, occasionally changing angles to get a better picture. The patient must hold still for a clear picture, and the patient may need to hold his or her breath at certain points to avoid movements in the chest which could obscure the ultrasound image.
Patients usually lie down or are propped in a partially seated position for this ultrasound. In some cases, the doctor may ask the patient to exercise before a cardiac ultrasound so an image of the heart under stress can be produced. In this case, an image of the resting heart may be acquired before the heart is stressed.
If a doctor performs the ultrasound, he or she may discuss the ramifications of the results immediately with the patient. In other instances, the doctor may want to review the ultrasound images along with the results of bloodwork and other tests before discussing the patient's situation. Ultrasound technicians are usually not allowed to discuss medical information with patients, instead turning the images over to a radiologist or doctor for interpretation.