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What is an Exercise Echocardiogram?
An exercise echocardiogram, also known as a stress echocardiogram, is a test that combines an ultrasound study of the heart with an exercise test. The test allows doctors to learn how the heart functions when it is made to work harder.
The exercise echocardiogram is especially useful in diagnosing coronary artery disease, the presence of blockages in the coronary arteries (the vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart).
Is the Exercise Echocardiogram Safe?
The exercise test is generally safe. A small amount of risk does exist since exercise stresses the heart. Extremely rare complications include abnormal heart rhythms and a heart attack. Experienced personnel are available to handle any emergency.
What Does It Show?
An echocardiogram works very much like sonar. Ultrasound waves are transmitted into the chest and the reflection of these waves off the various parts of the heart is analyzed by sophisticated equipment.
A transducer, which is a small microphone-like device, is held against the chest. The transducer sends and receives the ultrasound waves. By moving the transducer to various positions on the chest, different structures of the heart may be analyzed.
A computer assembles the reflected ultrasound waves to create an image of the heart. These images appear on a television screen. The images may be recorded on videotape or printed on paper for review by the cardiologist.
To provide a baseline of information, an echocardiogram is first done while the patient is at rest. Then, a second echocardiogram is obtained during or immediately after an exercise test using a treadmill.
The images of the heart at rest and during exercise (under stress) are compared. Normally, all areas of the heart muscle pump more vigorously during exercise. If an area of the heart muscle does not pump, as it should during exercise, this often indicates that it is not receiving a sufficient flow of oxygen-rich blood because of a blocked or narrowed coronary artery.
Although an exercise echocardiogram indicates regions of the heart that may be affected by reduced blood flow through the coronary arteries, it does not provide images of the actual coronary arteries. If blocked or narrowed coronary arteries are suspected, your doctor may recommend additional tests.
Preparing For A Test
What Happens During the Test?
The echocardiogram can be performed in the doctor's office or at the hospital. No special preparation is necessary for this test. If you are scheduled for an exercise echocardiogram, however, you will be given special instructions.
You will be asked to remove clothing above the waist, and put on a hospital gown or a sheet to help keep you warm and comfortable. You will then lie on an examination table.
Electrodes (small sticky patches) and wires will be attached to your chest and shoulders to record your electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). The ECG shows your heart's electrical activity during the test.
Next, you will lie on your back or on your left side. To improve the quality of the pictures, a colorless gel is applied to the area of the chest where the transducer will be placed.
A technician moves the transducer over the chest, to obtain different views of the heart. He or she may ask you to change positions. You may also be asked to breathe slowly or hold your breath, in order to get a better picture. A thorough examination usually takes from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of views and whether the Doppler echo is used.
What Happens During the Test?
You will be asked to lie on a hospital bed or examination table. To improve the quality of the pictures, a colorless gel is applied to the area of the chest where the transducer will be placed.
A technician moves the transducer to various places over the left side of your chest. Pictures of your heart at rest are recorded on videotape.
The exercise portion of the test can be performed in the doctor's office or at the hospital. A trained technician will place several electrodes (small sticky patches) on your chest and shoulders to allow recording of the ECG during exercise. Wires link the electrodes to an ECG machine. A cuff will be applied to your arm to monitor your blood pressure during the test.
You will be shown how to step onto the treadmill and how to use the support railings to maintain your balance. The treadmill starts slowly, and then the speed and incline are increased gradually.
Your blood pressure will be checked every few minutes, and the ECG will be carefully watched for abnormal changes. You will be instructed to report any symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, leg fatigue, or dizziness.
The test may end when you become too tired to continue or when you experience significant symptoms. Other times, the test may be stopped when you reach your peak heart rate or when your ECG shows abnormal changes.
After the exercise portion of the test is over, you will be helped to a chair or a bed. Your blood pressure and ECG will be monitored while you recover. The technician will remove the electrodes and cleanse the electrode sites. The test typically takes between 45 minutes to one hour, which includes preparation for the test, the exercise portion, and the recovery period.
You will be helped back to the examination table. The technician records a second set of images immediately after you finish exercising.
Doctors then compare the two sets of images (before and after exercise) side by side to see how your heart responds to the stress of exercise.
Typically, the doctor will review the images at a later time and prepare a report detailing his findings. This may take several days before the completed report is ready.
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