Experiencing chest pain is a scary ordeal if you don't know where the pain is coming from. In many cases, doctors will tell patients to proceed to the emergency room if they experience chest pain in the middle of the night, on a weekend or any other time when they cannot be seen by their primary care physicians quickly. Whether you go to the ER or your regular doctor is able to see you promptly, you will likely have some diagnostic tests to find out where the pain is coming from. Chest or heart ultrasounds are often used as one tool to get a better look at what's going on in your chest.
Echocardiogram: Ultrasound of the Heart
If there is a suspicion that your pain is coming from your heart, doctors will use several methods of checking this vital organ. An echocardiogram, or heart ultrasound, is an effective way to see all of the structures of the heart and how they're functioning. In most hospitals and radiology offices, the test is performed by a sonographer. Once it's done, a cardiologist will read the results and will forward them to your regular physician or to the doctor treating you in the hospital.
One convenience of having an echocardiogram is that there is no special preparation. You won't be injected with dyes and you can eat and drink normally before the test. There's no radiation involved. A transducer (ultrasound wand) is placed on your skin and lubricated with a slippery gel. Women may experience some discomfort when the transducer is pushed against the left breast, but otherwise, the procedure is painless. Your sonographer will take photos of the various chambers of your heart, as well as recordings of how the blood is flowing through the blood vessels and chambers.
One note to keep in mind: Often a sonographer will call in another medical professional during the echocardiogram if he or she is having trouble getting a clear image of part of your heart. Don't panic! This is relatively common because it can be difficult to achieve the right angle in some patients. This is akin to having a nurse call in another nurse to place an IV if your veins are small, and it's no reason to think that anything is out of the ordinary.
While the heart is often suspected of being the problem if there is chest pain, especially if the pain is on the left side of the chest or travels down the left arm, there are, of course, other organs that can be causing pain and discomfort. A chest ultrasound that focuses on these other organs can show doctors what's happening in the lungs, esophagus, trachea, aorta and the space around your chest wall. Like an echocardiogram, a chest X-ray requires no preparation, includes no radiation and is painless.
In addition to a regular chest ultrasound, which is silent, a Doppler ultrasound might also be used. If you or your partner has ever been pregnant, you may be familiar with this type of ultrasound; it's what is used to listen to your baby's heartbeat while in the womb. In this case, the Doppler ultrasound can be used to assess how your blood is flowing through the arteries in your chest. During this test, you'll hear a "whoosh whoosh" sound of your blood flow.
As with any medical test or procedure, it's important to discuss any concerns you may have with your physician. Your sonographer will ask you questions about whether you have a pacemaker, cancer and other health concerns. Be sure to answer these accurately so any potential risks of the ultrasound can be mitigated. In general, an ultrasound is a fast, safe and effective tool used for diagnosis of chest pain, and it should not cause any side effects in the vast majority of patients.
If you have specific questions about imaging procedures, contact a clinic like EVDI Medical Imaging.