An echocardiogram (echo) is an ultrasound of the heart which helps doctors evaluate the strength and function of a child’s heart.
An echocardiogram uses sound waves to create a detailed picture of your heart in the same way that an ultrasound can provide an image of a developing baby. You do not need to do anything specific to prepare for the test.
An echocardiogram is not the same as an electrocardiogram (ECG) – While an ECG measures the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity (which are then displayed on a graph), an echocardiogram provides a physical image of your heart when the sound waves echo against the heart muscle and its surrounding blood vessels.
The following video demonstrates an echocardiogram in two children undergoing cancer treatment. This video was designed to educate parents and caregivers by showing actual patients receiving treatment.
Why an Echocardiogram is Done
An echocardiogram may be done to check for any problems with the heart. An echocardiogram may be done to:
- Assess any effects of medications or chemotherapies that are known to affect the heart
- Determine a baseline before chemotherapy starts; This baseline can be used throughout treatment to monitor the heart.
- Help decide whether a person is healthy enough to tolerate certain treatments
Performing the Procedure
An echocardiogram can be done in a hospital, medical clinic or doctor’s office, and generally takes 20–45 minutes.
Your child will need to remove all clothes and jewellery from the waist up and lies on a stretcher or bed. A special gel will be placed on your child’s chest and the technician may also attach Electrocardiogram (ECG) electrodes to the child’s chest.
The technician will place a small probe called a transducer on your child’s chest and move it across and around the chest to obtain images from different locations and structures of the heart.
When this probe is pressed against the skin, it will transmit pulses of sound through the skin. This sound will be inaudible to you, but the probe is capable of providing data about the echoes that reflect back from your child’s heart in order to produce a clear image of their heart on an adjacent monitor.
Your child will probably be positioned so that they cannot see this monitor, as some children are unnerved by the image and typically interpret it incorrectly. During the test, your child will need to change position several times so that images of the different chambers and blood vessels can be obtained.
The lubricating jelly that is applied to your child’s skin may be a bit cold, but they will not feel anything else apart from the gentle pressure of the probe against their skin. Having an echo does not hurt or have side effects.
Special Considerations for Children
Being prepared for a test or procedure can reduce anxiety, increase cooperation and help the child develop coping skills. Parents and caregivers can help prepare children by explaining to them what will happen, including what they will see, feel and hear during the test.
- There are no needles and no pain involved, and you can remain with your child throughout the procedure;
- It will help a lot to bring a favourite toy, security item (blanket or pillow) or pacifier along for your child as this will help keep them calm.
- Children under 4 years of age may need sedation to remain still.
- If sedation is used: your child may not be allowed to eat or drink for several hours before the test. Doctors may insert an IV, and may connect your child to a heart monitor.
Any preparation you can provide for an echocardiogram will depend on the age and experience of your child. It is best to enquire from your doctor whether you need to do any preparation.