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Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures


Thomas Cascino

, MD, MSc, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan;

Michael J. Shea

, MD, Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023
Topic Resources

Ultrasonography Ultrasonography Ultrasonography is a type of medical imaging that uses high-frequency sound (ultrasound) waves to produce images of internal organs and other tissues. During an ultrasound, a device called a... read more Ultrasonography is a type of medical imaging that uses high-frequency (ultrasound) waves to produce a moving image of internal organs and other tissues. Echocardiography is ultrasonography of the heart.

Ultrasonography of the heart (echocardiography) is one of the most widely used procedures for diagnosing heart disorders because it provides excellent images and is

  • Noninvasive

  • Harmless

  • Relatively inexpensive

  • Widely available

The Heart

Ultrasonography is also used in the diagnosis of disorders affecting blood vessels in other parts of the body.

Echocardiography can be used to detect whether the heart muscle is moving normally and how much blood the heart is pumping out with each beat. This procedure can also detect abnormalities in the heart's structure, such as defective heart valves Overview of Heart Valve Disorders Heart valves regulate the flow of blood through the heart's four chambers—two small, round upper chambers (atria) and two larger, cone-shaped lower chambers (ventricles). Each ventricle has... read more Overview of Heart Valve Disorders , birth defects Overview of Heart Defects About one in 100 babies is born with a heart defect. Some are severe, but many are not. Defects may involve abnormal formation of the heart's walls or valves or of the blood vessels that enter... read more (such as holes in the walls between the heart's chambers), and enlargement of the heart's walls or chambers, as occurs in people with high blood pressure High Blood Pressure High blood pressure (hypertension) is persistently high pressure in the arteries. Often no cause for high blood pressure can be identified, but sometimes it occurs as a result of an underlying... read more High Blood Pressure , heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure is a disorder in which the heart is unable to keep up with the demands of the body, leading to reduced blood flow, back-up (congestion) of blood in the veins and lungs, and/or... read more Heart Failure (HF) , or impairment of the heart's muscular walls (cardiomyopathy Overview of Cardiomyopathy Cardiomyopathy refers to progressive impairment of the structure and function of the muscular walls of the heart chambers. There are 3 main types of cardiomyopathy: Dilated cardiomyopathy, in... read more ).

Echocardiography can also be used to detect pericardial effusion, in which fluid accumulates between the two layers of the sac that envelops the heart (pericardium), and constrictive pericarditis, in which scar tissue forms throughout the pericardium. It also can detect dissection of the aorta Aortic Dissection An aortic dissection is an often fatal disorder in which the inner layer (lining) of the aortic wall tears and separates from the middle layer of the aortic wall. Most aortic dissections occur... read more , a tearing within the layers of the wall of the aorta.

The main types of ultrasonography are

  • Two-dimensional

  • Three-dimensional

  • Doppler

  • Color Doppler

  • Strain imaging

Two-dimensional ultrasonography, the most widely used technique, produces realistic two-dimensional images in computer-generated "slices." "Stacking" the slices together can re-create a three-dimensional structure.

Doppler ultrasonography shows the direction and velocity of blood flow and thus can detect turbulent flow due to narrowing or blockage of blood vessels.

Color Doppler ultrasonography shows the different directions of blood flow in different colors.

Doppler ultrasonography and color Doppler ultrasonography are commonly used to help diagnose disorders affecting the heart and the arteries and veins in the trunk, legs, and arms. Because these procedures can show the direction and rate of blood flow in the chambers and blood vessels of the heart, they enable doctors to evaluate the structure and function of these parts. For example, doctors can determine if the heart valves open and close properly, if and how much they leak when closed, and if blood flows normally. Abnormal connections between an artery and a vein or between heart chambers can also be detected.

Strain imaging is an echocardiographic technique that is increasingly used. It measures changes in the motion of the heart muscle. Strain imaging can diagnose heart disease before changes are visible with conventional echocardiography, differentiate between different causes of heart disease, and predict prognosis in a variety of heart diseases, including heart failure.

How echocardiography is done

The ultrasound waves are emitted by a probe that both emits and detects ultrasound waves (transducer). The transducer can be placed

  • On the person's chest (transthoracic)

  • In the person's esophagus (transesophageal)

  • Sometimes on a catheter inside the heart (intracardiac)

In transthoracic echocardiography (the most common type), the transducer is handheld and placed on the chest over the heart. The examiner places gel on the chest under the transducer to help transmit the sound waves into the chest. The transducer is connected to a computer that displays an image on a monitor and stores the image digitally. By varying the placement and angle of the transducer, doctors can view the heart and nearby major blood vessels from various angles and thus get an accurate picture of heart structure and function. During various portions of the examination, people will need to hold their breath for about 10 seconds to ensure clear images are obtained. Transthoracic echocardiography is painless and takes 20 to 30 minutes.

Sometimes doctors use a portable ultrasonography machine at the person's bedside in order to determine specific information quickly. Often portable technology is used when people are receiving care in an emergency department or intensive care unit.

Transthoracic Echocardiography

Transesophageal echocardiography can be used if doctors need to obtain greater clarity or to analyze the aorta or structures at the back of the heart (particularly the left atrium or left ventricle). For this procedure, a small flexible tube with an ultrasound transducer at the tip is passed down the person's throat into the esophagus so that the transducer lies just behind the heart. Because this procedure is uncomfortable, the person is sedated and the throat is numbed with an anesthetic spray. Transesophageal echocardiography is also used when regular echocardiography is difficult to do because of obesity, lung disorders, or other technical problems or when doctors are looking for specific diseases, such as endocarditis Infective Endocarditis Infective endocarditis is an infection of the lining of the heart (endocardium) and usually also of the heart valves. Infective endocarditis occurs when bacteria enter the bloodstream and travel... read more Infective Endocarditis of the mitral valve or aortic valve or a clot within the heart.

Intracardiac echocardiography is a rare type of echocardiography that is done when a person is having a procedure on the heart such as a procedure to repair an atrial septal defect Atrial and Ventricular Septal Defects Atrial and ventricular septal defects are holes in the walls (septa) that separate the heart into the left and right sides. Holes can be present in the walls of the heart between the upper heart... read more Atrial and Ventricular Septal Defects (hole in the heart). For intracardiac echocardiography, a small flexible tube with an ultrasound transducer at the tip is passed from a blood vessel in the groin directly into a chamber of the heart. The person having this procedure is usually sedated. Intracardiac echocardiography is used when doctors need to obtain detailed pictures of the heart that cannot be obtained using transthoracic or transesophageal echocardiography.

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