The Future of Heart Health: 3-D Echocardiograms
Echocardiograms have long been an essential diagnostic tool for heart patients. These tests use specialized machinery to bounce high-frequency (“ultrasound”) signals off a patient’s heart. The pattern that emerges creates a two-dimensional (“2-D”) picture of the heart, also known as a “slice.” A physician can use the image to diagnose or rule out certain cardiac conditions.
For many years, 2-D echocardiography was the gold standard in cardiac medicine. But thanks to major technological innovations, three-dimensional (“3-D”) echocardiography is rapidly becoming a go-to diagnostic tool. According to leading cardiologists, 3-D echocardiograms may soon “surpass current 2-D echo imaging” as a dominant diagnostic test.
3-D echocardiograms differ from 2-D images in a number of ways:
- While both 3-D and 2-D echocardiograms offer “real time” imaging of a patient’s heart, 2-D imaging offers only a single slice, or “cut” of the heart. But 3-D ultrasound imaging allows a physician to view a patient’s entire heart in real time.
- Only 3-D echocardiography supports image rotation. A physician can look at the front of a patient’s heart, then flip over the picture and look at the back.
- 3-D echocardiograms allow physicians to examine multiple slices, but 2-D testing supports only one slice.
3-D echocardiograph testing can be offered wherever cardiac testing is available to patients. It can be conducted in conventional hospitals and also in mobile cath labs, which are fully-equipped laboratories that have been set up to provide cardiac testing services in rural and underserved areas, to diverse populations like women and certain minorities, and also in areas affected by natural disasters or other emergencies.
Cardiac patients should inquire about the availability of 3-D echocardiography because it offers physicians a number of important advantages:
- It allows physicians to view the actual operation of a heart.
- It images all of the geography of the heart, giving physicians a global understanding of a patient’s anatomy.
- 3-D cardiac imaging takes less time than 2-D echocardiography. Testing ends more quickly, and patients can go home sooner.
- The rapid delivery of 3-D echocardiograms enables physicians to view images, reach conclusions, and discuss their findings with patients in less time than 2-D echocardiography would take. This alleviates a patient’s stress level.
- 3-D imaging is more precise, and if surgery is needed, the cardiac surgeon will have detailed, advance information for surgical planning. The element of surprise is reduced.
3-D echocardiograms are simple to perform. The patient does not have to abstain from eating or drinking prior to testing, and can report in street clothes. Upon arrival, the patient registers and is taken into an ultrasound room, where she changes into a gown. The patient then lies down, on her left side, on an examination table.
A cardiac sonographer with unique training and experience will attach electrodes to the patient’s chest with medical tape and spread a special gel on a transducer, which is the device that sends and receives ultrasonic waves. The waves will not be audible to the patient, but will simply bounce back and forth between the transducer and the patient, forming an image of the heart. The sonographer moves the transducer around on the patient’s chest, watching the live results on a monitor to make sure she gets a good image. A cardiologist interprets the results with the sonographer shortly after the exam.
3-D echocardiograms can be used to diagnose a number of cardiac conditions, including mitral valve tears, holes in the heart, heart murmurs, pericarditis, and pulmonary hypertension. They can also help physicians to track the progress of ongoing cardiac conditions, like heart valve disease. For these reasons and more, a 3-D echocardiogram is another option in maintaining heart health, and promoting early diagnosis of heart disease.