What happens during an echocardiogram?

Deborah Davis
OBGYN (Obstetrics & Gynecology)
After undressing from the waist up, you'll lie on an examining table or bed.  The technician will attach sticky patches (electrodes)  to your body to help detect and conduct the electrical currents of your heart.  If you are having a transesophageal echocardiogram, your throat will be numbered with a numbering spray or gel.  You will be given a sedative to help you relax.  During the procedure, the technician will dim the lights to better view the image on the monitor.  You may hear a pulsing "whoosh" sound, which is the machine recording the blood flowing through your heart.  Most echocardiograms take less than one hour, but the timing may vary depending on your condition.  During a transthoracic echocardiogram, you may be asked to breathe in a certain way or to roll onto your left side.  Sometimes the transducer must be held very firmly against your chest.  This can be uncomfortable - but it helps the technician produce the best images of your heart.
An echocardiogram is a noninvasive (the skin is not pierced) procedure used to assess the heart's function and structures. During the procedure, a transducer (like a microphone) sends out ultrasonic sound waves at a frequency too high to be heard. When the transducer is placed on the chest at certain locations and angles, the ultrasonic sound waves move through the skin and other body tissues to the heart tissues, where the waves echo off of the heart structures. The transducer picks up the reflected waves and sends them to a computer. The computer interprets the echoes into an image of the heart walls and valves.

An echocardiogram may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your physician's practices. Generally, an echocardiogram follows this process:
  1. You will be asked to remove any jewelry or other objects that may interfere with the procedure. You may wear your glasses, dentures, or hearing aids if you use any of these.
  2. You will be asked to remove clothing and will be given a gown to wear.
  3. You will lie on a table or bed, positioned on your left side. A pillow or wedge may be placed behind your back for support.
  4. You will be connected to an electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor that records the electrical activity of the heart and monitors the heart during the procedure using small, adhesive electrodes. The ECG tracings that record the electrical activity of the heart will be compared to the images displayed on the echocardiogram monitor.
  5. The room will be darkened so that the images on the echo monitor can be viewed by the technologist.
  6. The technologist will place warmed gel on your chest and then place a transducer probe on the gel. You will feel a slight pressure as the technologist positions the transducer to get the desired image of your heart.
  7. During the test, the technologist will move the transducer probe around and apply varying amounts of pressure to obtain images of different locations and structures of your heart. The amount of pressure behind the probe should not be uncomfortable. If it does make you uncomfortable, however, let the technologist know.
  8. After the procedure has been completed, the technologist will wipe the gel from your chest and remove the ECG electrode pads. You may then put on your clothes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.