An echocardiogram or 'echo' is a cardiac ultrasound used to examine the heart. It provides images of the heart working in several way (2-D images, cross sectional images, colour flow images), and can look carefully at the size of the heart, the function of the heart muscle and the valves and blood flow within the heart.

The most common echo is a transthoracic echo - i.e. done from the front of the chest wall. The test is simple and painless and involves a very simple ECG and a probe passed over the front of the chest and beneath the left breast (with a clear water-soluble gel to improve the connection with the skin).

A transthoracic echo can tell the doctor:

The size of the heart: it can measure the size of the lower chambers of the heart, including the thickness of the walls of the main pumping chamber, the left ventricle (which may be thickened in high blood pressure or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). It can also measure the size of the top of the heart or atria, which are often enlarged in atrial fibrillation.

The function of the heart and whether it is reduced. This is often measures as an 'ejection fraction'. This is not 100% but a normal ejection fraction is around 50 to 65%. The echo will also look at different areas of the heart muscle - if particular areas do not work well this may be the result of a heart attack to that area, whereas if the heart muscle is affected all over then it suggests that dilated cardiomyopathy is more likely.

The valves of the heart: the echocardiogram can identify the structure, thickness and movement of each heart valve. It can help determine if the valve is normal, scarred or thickened or calcified. It can also look at the blood flow across the valve and see whether it is leaky (some blood goes back across the valve instead of going forward through the heart) or narrowed (stenosed, where the valves does not open as well as usual). It can also be used to look at artificial valves, though metallic can be difficult to see and a transoesophageal echocardiogram is sometimes used.

Holes in the heart: the transthoracic echocardiogram does not always pick these up and a transoesophageal echocardiogram is often used.

Please note:

Every effort has been made to ensure that the information on this website is up-to-date and accurate. However, it is intended to serve as a guide only. Symptoms may vary and if you have any medical concerns you should always consult a healthcare professional.