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A moving image of the heart created by sound waves. An echocardiogram can produce a much more detailed image of the heart than a standard x-ray.

To perform an echocardiogram, a trained sonographer places a transducer, an instrument that transmits high-frequency sound waves, on a person’s ribs near the breast bone. The transducer directs sound waves toward the heart, picks up the sound waves echoing back from the heart, and translates them into electrical signals that are converted by the echocardiography machine to produce the moving image of the heart on the screen. The echocardiogram allows the doctor to see many key structures of the heart and to watch the heart beating. Echocardiography may be used to evaluate a number of heart conditions, including cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), heart failure, and heart valve abnormalities.

In some cases, if the standard echocardiogram fails to produce a clear image, a test called the transesophageal echocardiogram (or TEE) may be used. For this procedure, the back of the person’s throat is numbed with anesthetic, and a thin, lubricated scope is inserted into the throat. The device is guided into the esophagus, right behind the heart, allowing for a better image of the heart’s valves and chambers, unobstructed by the ribs or lungs.

Originally Published November 18, 2009

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