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.