There are several types of echocardiography (echo)—all use sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart. This is the same technology that allows doctors to see an unborn baby inside a pregnant woman.
Unlike x rays and some other tests, echo doesn’t involve radiation.
Transthoracic (tranz-thor-AS-ik) echo is the most common type of echocardiogram test. It’s painless and noninvasive. “Noninvasive” means that no surgery is done and no instruments are inserted into your body.
This type of echo involves placing a device called a transducer on your chest. The device sends special sound waves, called ultrasound, through your chest wall to your heart. The human ear can’t hear ultrasound waves.
As the ultrasound waves bounce off the structures of your heart, a computer in the echo machine converts them into pictures on a screen.
Stress echo is done as part of a stress test. During a stress test, you exercise or take medicine (given by your doctor) to make your heart work hard and beat fast. A technician will use echo to create pictures of your heart before you exercise and as soon as you finish.
Some heart problems, such as coronary heart disease, are easier to diagnose when the heart is working hard and beating fast.
Your doctor may have a hard time seeing the aorta and other parts of your heart using a standard transthoracic echo. Thus, he or she may recommend transesophageal (tranz-ih-sof-uh-JEE-ul) echo, or TEE.
During this test, the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube. The tube is guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). This allows your doctor to get more detailed pictures of your heart.
Fetal echo is used to look at an unborn baby’s heart. A doctor may recommend this test to check a baby for heart problems. When recommended, the test is commonly done at about 18 to 22 weeks of pregnancy. For this test, the transducer is moved over the pregnant woman’s belly.
A three-dimensional (3D) echo creates 3D images of your heart. These detailed images show how your heart looks and works.
During transthoracic echo or TEE, 3D images can be taken as part of the process used to do these types of echo. (See above for more information about how transthoracic echo and TEE are done.)
Doctors may use 3D echo to diagnose heart problems in children. They also may use 3D echo for planning and overseeing heart valve surgery.
Researchers continue to study new ways to use 3D echo.
What Is Transesophageal Echocardiography?
Transesophageal (tranz-ih-sof-uh-JEE-ul) echocardiography (EK-o-kar-de-OG-rah-fee), or TEE, is a test that uses sound waves to create high-quality moving pictures of the heart and its blood vessels.
TEE is a type of echocardiography (echo). Echo shows the size and shape of the heart and how well the heart chambers and valves are working.
Echo can pinpoint areas of heart muscle that aren’t contracting well because of poor blood flow or injury from a previous heart attack.
Echo also 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.
During echo, a device called a transducer is used to send sound waves (called ultrasound) to the heart. As the ultrasound waves bounce off the structures of the heart, a computer in the echo machine converts them into pictures on a screen.
TEE involves a flexible tube (probe) with a transducer at its tip. Your doctor will guide the probe down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). This approach allows your doctor to get more detailed pictures of your heart because the esophagus is directly behind the heart.
TEE can help doctors diagnose heart and blood vessel diseases and conditions in adults and children. Doctors also may use TEE to guidecardiac catheterization (KATH-eh-ter-ih-ZA-shun), help prepare for surgery, or assess a patient’s status during or after surgery.
Doctors may use TEE in addition to transthoracic (tranz-thor-AS-ik) echo(TTE), the most common type of echo. If TTE pictures don’t give doctors enough information, they may recommend TEE to get more detailed pictures.
TEE has a low risk of complications in both adults and children. Even newborns can have TEE.
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.