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Ultrasound is one of the most widely used diagnostic procedures available. It provides a safe, non-invasive and virtually painless means of observing soft tissue anatomy on an outpatient basis.

Because it can be used in the most delicate conditions without major side effects, ultrasound has become one of the most popular diagnostic methods among both patients and physicians. Diagnostic ultrasound allows physicians to diagnose without invading the body with dyes, radiation or exploratory surgery.

Ultrasound imaging is based on the same principles involved in the sonar used by bats. During an exam, a sonographer moves a transducer over the part of the body to be imaged. The transducer functions as both a loudspeaker (to create the sounds) and a microphone (to record them). High-frequency sound waves reflect off internal structures (soft tissue, organs and blood flow), producing echoes that are processed into an image displayed on the ultrasound system monitor.

An echocardiogram is a safe, non-invasive ultrasound imaging procedure used to assess cardiac function. Echocardiography allows doctors to visualize the anatomy, structure, and function of the heart. The echocardiogram can show all four chambers of the heart, the heart valves, the blood vessels entering and leaving the heart, and the sack around the heart. It can lead to a quick diagnosis of heart valve problems or abnormal flow within the heart.

How should I prepare for the procedure?

You should wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing for your exam. Other preparation depends on the type of examination you will have. For some scans, your doctor may instruct you not to eat or drink for as many as 12 hours before your appointment.

Who performs the exam and who interprets the results?

A cardiac sonographer, a health care professional specially trained and certified in ultrasound imaging of the heart, usually performs the procedure. The results are reviewed and interpreted by a cardiologist.

How is the procedure performed?

Depending on the type of exam, you may be instructed to lie down or sit upright on an examining table. The sonographer will apply gel on your skin and press the transducer firmly against your body, moving it until the desired images are captured.

Transesophageal echo involves the passage of a very small tube down the food pipe, or esophagus. Because the esophagus lies in close proximity (behind) the heart, outstanding images of the heart can be obtained. To minimize the amount of discomfort that a patient might have from swallowing the probe, patients are often given oral sprays of novocaine-like medicine, as well as intravenous medicine to relax them and minimize any discomfort.

The sonographer sees the images on the monitor immediately. Often the patient is able to see them, as well. The examination usually takes approximately 30 minutes.

What happens if the doctor finds something of concern? The doctor will explain the findings of the echocardiogram to your referring physician. Then additional tests may be performed or treatment may be recommended. Treatment for heart problems include medication, surgery and lifestyle modification.