An echocardiogram, known by medical professionals simply as an “echo,” is an ultrasound test that can examine the inside of the heart without the use of X-ray radiation. One of the advantages of an echocardiogram over other ways of imaging the heart is that it can display the heart as it is beating. This is important because some disorders of the heart are only noticeable when the heart is moving. An X-ray or CT scan of the heart merely provides a “snapshot” of the heart. During an echocardiogram test, an echocardiography technician records a short movie of the beating heart which a cardiologist then analyzes and uses to make diagnoses.
Similar to an ultrasound of an unborn baby in the womb, sound waves are used to identify structures inside the heart such as the chambers and the valves. Special software and techniques can be used to look at blood flow through the heart and determine its direction. For example, blood flowing away from the echocardiogram probe is usually indicated in red, blood flowing toward the probe is blue, and purple indicates blood that is running parallel to the end of the probe. For diseases of the heart valves knowing visualizing the direction of blood flow is very useful echocardiogram feature.
An echocardiogram is completely painless and relatively quick. For most people, the most uncomfortable part of an echocardiogram test is the application of a (usually) cold jelly that is needed for the sound waves to pass into the tissues of the body. For larger people and those with more fat in the abdomen, the echocardiography technician may need to press the probe fairly hard in order to get good pictures of the heart. Other than this, the procedure is without pain or discomfort. You will be completely awake during the procedure and will likely hear a wooshing sounds as the probe senses blood flow through the heart.
You may recall that a cardiac stress test is a test designed to “stress” the heart with either a physical (exercise) or chemical stressor. Once the heart is stressed, an EKG or ECG (electrocardiogram) is performed to examine the electrical signals as they travel through the heart. In a stress echocardiogram, the heart is examined with an echocardiogram in addition to an EKG. A stress echocardiogram is often performed in patients with suspected ischemic heart disease or angina or in people that may have had a heart attack in the past. The heart is made mostly of cardiac muscle and when it has been damaged in a heart attack or when the heart is not getting enough blood flow through the coronaries, it will move abnormally. A stress echocardiogram is ideal for examining abnormal heart movements that may occur when the heart is stressed.
Since an echocardiogram is an important diagnostic test, the cost is usually covered in whole or in part by health insurance. For those that are not insured or underinsured, the average echocardiogram cost is anywhere from $300 to $1,200 or more. A stress echocardiogram may be $200 to $400 more expensive and there may be additional costs. The final cost can vary considerably, so it is best to ask your insurance carrier or cardiologist about the precise echocardiogram cost, if this information is available before a bill is drafted.