What is cardiac ultrasound?

Cardiac ultrasound or echocardiography is a medical imaging procedure in which the goal is to generate an image of the heart in order to evaluate a heart condition or possible heart problem. Like other types of ultrasound imaging, cardiac ultrasound is noninvasive and painless, and can be performed as an outpatient procedure in a clinic or hospital. There are a variety of reasons for a doctor to order a cardiac ultrasound, and he or she will usually discuss the reason for the procedure with the patient at the time the procedure is recommended.

Ultrasound is based on the use of high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the inside of the body. The waves are emitted by a transducer that also picks up the waves when they bounce back, generating an image based on the way the sound waves change as they bounce off objects in the chest cavity. In a basic cardiac ultrasound, a flat image of the heart is produced, and it is also possible to generate a three-dimensional ultrasound image with the use of an array of transducers. Both still images and video can be captured with echocardiography.

In a cardiac ultrasound, the patient's chest will be exposed and covered with a conductive gel. The ultrasound technician or doctor will move the transducer across the chest, occasionally changing angles to get a better image. The patient must lie still to obtain a clear image, and the patient may need to hold their breath at certain points to avoid movements in the chest that may obscure the ultrasound image.

Patients usually lie down or are supported in a partially sitting position for a cardiac ultrasound. In some cases, the doctor may ask the patient to exercise before a cardiac ultrasound in order to produce an image of the heart under stress. In this case, an image of the heart at rest can be obtained before the heart is stressed.

If a physician performs the ultrasound, he or she can discuss the ramifications of the results immediately with the patient. In other cases, the doctor may want to review the ultrasound images along with the results of blood tests and other tests before discussing the patient's situation. Ultrasound technicians are generally not allowed to discuss medical information with patients, but instead turn the images over to a radiologist or physician for interpretation.

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