The echocardiogram, or echo, is a noninvasive test that provides cardiologists with a survey of the heart using the same ultrasound technology used for pregnant women.

The test is performed by a technician called a sonographer, who spreads a gel over the chest to make sure that the ultrasound camera maintains good contact with the skin. During the exam, the sonographer will take still pictures of the heart, record video of the heart beating and examine the direction of blood flow.

The echocardiogram allows cardiologists to examine the size of a patient's heart and the condition of the patient's valves to determine how efficiently the heart contracts. Echos also reveal common congenital problems and possible causes of murmurs, palpitations, chest pain and shortness of breath.

An echocardiogram may be performed for further evaluation of signs or symptoms that may suggest:

  • Aneurysm – a dilation of a part of the heart muscle or the aorta, which may cause weakness of the tissue at the site of the aneurysm
  • Atherosclerosis – a gradual clogging of the arteries over many years by fatty materials and other substances in the bloodstream
  • Cardiac tumor – a tumor of the heart that may occur on the outside surface of the heart, within one or more chambers of the heart, or within the muscle tissue of the heart
  • Cardiomyopathy – an enlargement of the heart due to thickening or weakening of the heart muscle
  • Congenital heart disease – a defect in one or more heart structures that occurs during formation of a fetus
  • Congestive heart failure – a condition in which the heart muscle has become weakened to an extent that blood cannot be pumped efficiently, causing buildup in the blood vessels and lungs, and edema (swelling) in the feet, ankles and other parts of the body
  • Pericarditis – an inflammation or infection of the sac surrounding the heart
  • Valvular heart disease – malfunction of one or more of the heart valves that may cause an obstruction of the blood flow within the heart

Based on the results of this 20- to 30-minute test, cardiologists determine if more invasive tests are needed.