Echocardiography is a diagnostic technique that can provide a wealth of helpful information, including the size and shape of the heart, its pumping strength, and the location and extent of any damage to its tissues. It is especially useful for assessing diseases of the heart valves. Echocardiography can reveal such abnormalities as poorly functioning heart valves or damage to the heart tissue from a past heart attack. However, a normal echocardiogram does not rule out the possibility of coronary heart disease.

Echocardiography creates an image of the heart using ultra-high-frequency sound waves that cannot be heard by the human ear. The technique is very similarto the ultrasound tests commonly used to see the fetus during pregnancy. A big advantage of echocardiography is that it does not involve breaking the skin or probing body cavities and has no known risks or side effects.

Echocardiography is used to diagnose certain cardiovascular diseases. In fact, it is one of the most widely used diagnostic tests for heart disease. By showing the motion of the heart wall, echocardiography can help physicians detect the presence and assess the severity of coronary artery disease, as well as help determine whether any chest pain is related to heart disease. Echocardiography can also help diagnose hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the walls of the heart thicken to compensate for heart muscle weakness.

An echocardiography examination generally lasts no more than 30 minutes. Thetransducer, a small, hand-held device at the end of a flexible cable, is placed against the patient's chest. This directs the harmless ultrasound waves into the chest. Some of the waves get echoed (or reflected) back to the transducer. Since different tissues and blood all reflect ultrasound waves differently, the echoed sound waves can be translated into an image of the heart, which the physician can see and evaluate on a monitor.

There a several variations of echocardiogram. One is the Doppler echocardiogram, which can detect abnormalities in the pattern of blood flow, such as thebackward flow of blood through partly closed heart valves ("regurgitation").An exercise echocardiogram is performed during physical effort such as walking briskly, when the heart muscle must work harder to supply blood to the body. This allows doctors to detect heart problems that might not be evident whenthe body is at rest and needs less blood. For patients who are unable to exercise, certain drugs can be used to mimic the effects of exercise by dilatingthe blood vessels and making the heart beat faster.

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