Written by Jo Quirk, Cardiac Nurse Specialist at Leeds General Infirmary
A transthoracic echocardiogram (commonly known as an echo) is a scan of the heart using a machine, a probe and gel. The probe is placed on the chest wall and ultrasound pictures are taken of the heart. Electrodes (ECG) wires on the chest record the heart rate during the scan. The pictures are usually taken in two-dimensions, but more recently, three-dimensional images have become possible, and these may be useful in certain situations.
An echo usually takes about 30 minutes and is performed by specially-trained sonographers or doctors.
An echo can:
Diagnose structural abnormalities such as holes in the heart chambers or leaking or narrowed valves
Measure the function of the heart muscle
Detect fluid that may have collected around the heart
Once the echo is completed, the results are sent to the doctor who has requested the test, to help them to make a decision about your care.
Echos can be performed in outpatients. They are completely safe (they have no side effects) and so can be performed as many times as is necessary over time. Here is an example of an echo picture of someone with a hole in the top chambers of the heart (Atrial Septal Defect).
How can I prepare for having an echo?
Wear loose clothing that is easy to remove. You will be given a gown or sheet to cover you up and maintain your dignity.
Be prepared to lie still for about 30 minutes! The sonographer may ask you to lie on your side or your back to record some of the pictures.
Sometimes the probe when pressed on the chest can be uncomfortable, and cause some tenderness. Let the sonographer or doctor know if it is causing too much discomfort.
A transoesophageal echocardiogram (commonly known as a TOE) is also an ultrasound scan of the heart, but the probe is passed into the oesophagus (gullet). This procedure is done as a day case as patients often require some sedation.
A TOE is less commonly performed than a transthoracic echo, but can provide very detailed images of the heart when they are required. If a TOE is recommended, your doctor will explain why it would be of value and what is involved.