Doctors use echocardiogram testing to detect signs of heart disease, such as blood clots and murmurs, and to monitor progress after treatments, according to WebMD. Doctors may recommend testing when patients have irregular heartbeats, unexplained chest pain or shortness of breath. Echocardiograms help doctors examine the size and shape of heart chambers and the movement of the muscle walls to determine why the organ doesn't pump blood efficiently.
Echocardiograms are beneficial when doctors need to determine how well an artificial heart valve improves blood flow, WebMD states. The test can also detect changes in the thickness of the heart’s lining or a harmful buildup of fluid around the heart. When doctors suspect that heart problems are a result of stress, they use an echocardiogram to find out if blood flow to the heart muscle slows down when heart rate increases.
An echocardiogram relies on ultrasound technology to capture images of the heart, and doctors use four major variants of this procedure, according to Mayo Clinic. In a transthoracic echocardiogram, the doctor uses a handheld transducer to project an ultrasound beam toward the heart, and a computer converts the echoes of sound waves to produce accurate images. In a Doppler echocardiogram, a computer measures pitch fluctuations between sound waves to determine the speed of blood flow. A transesophageal echocardiogram requires a catheter to navigate a small transducer into the esophagus, while a stress echocardiogram involves comparing ultrasound results before and after physical exertion or drug-based heart stimulation.