Echocardiography (EK-o-kar-de-OG-rah-fee), or echo, is a painless test that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. The pictures show the size and shape of your heart. They also show how well your heart’s chambers and valves are working.
Echo also can pinpoint areas of heart muscle that aren’t contracting well because of poor blood flow or injury from a previous heart attack. A type of echo called Doppler ultrasound shows how well blood flows through your heart’s chambers and valves.
Echo can detect possible blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup in the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and problems with the aorta. The aorta is the main artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to your body.
Doctors also use echo to detect heart problems in teens, adults, and seniors.
Who Needs Echocardiography?
Your doctor may recommend echocardiography (echo) if you have signs or symptoms of heart problems.
For example, shortness of breath and swelling in the legs are possible signs of heart failure. Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet your body’s needs. Echo can show how well your heart is pumping blood.
Echo also can help your doctor find the cause of abnormal heart sounds, such as heart murmurs. Heart murmurs are extra or unusual sounds heard during the heartbeat. Some heart murmurs are harmless, while others are signs of heart problems.
Your doctor also may use echo to learn about:
The size of your heart. An enlarged heart might be the result of high blood pressure, leaky heart valves, or heart failure. Echo also can detect increased thickness of the ventricles (the heart’s lower chambers). Increased thickness may be due to high blood pressure, heart valve disease, or congenital heart defects.
Heart muscles that are weak and aren’t pumping well. Damage from a heart attack may cause weak areas of heart muscle. Weakening also might mean that the area isn’t getting enough blood supply, a sign of coronary heart disease.
Heart valve problems. Echo can show whether any of your heart valves don’t open normally or close tightly.
Problems with your heart’s structure. Echo can detect congenital heart defects, such as holes in the heart. Congenital heart defects are structural problems present at birth. Infants and children may have echo to detect these heart defects.
Blood clots or tumors. If you’ve had a stroke, you may have echo to check for blood clots or tumors that could have caused the stroke.
Your doctor also might recommend echo to see how well your heart responds to certain heart treatments, such as those used for heart failure.