Transesophageal echocardiography is a diagnostic test using an ultrasound device that is passed into the esophagus of the patient to create a clear image of the heart muscle and other parts of the heart. A tube with a device called a transducer is passed down into the patient's throat and into the esophagus (the food tube that connects the mouth to the stomach). The transducer directs ultrasound waves into the heart, and the reflected sound waves picked up by the transducer are translated into an image of the heart.
Since the esophagus is right next to the heart, transesophageal echocardiography provides a very clear picture of the heart. It can provide information on the size of the heart, its pumping strength, and the location and extent of any damage to its tissues. It can detect abnormal tissue growth around the heart valves. It is also good at detecting abnormalities in the pattern of blood flow, such as the backward flow of blood through partly closed heart valves, known as regurgitation or insufficiency. It is especially useful in cases in which conventional echocardiography (a test where the transducer is kept on the patient's chest) cannot offer a good image, such as when the patient is obese or has a thick chest wall. It is useful for monitoring heart function during cardiac surgery and detecting blood clots in the left atrium of the heart.
Patients should avoid consuming alcohol for a day or so before the procedure, since alcohol may amplify the effects of the sedative used with the procedure.
Echocardiography creates an image of the heart using ultra-high-frequency sound waves--sound waves that are much too high in frequency to be heard by the human ear. The technique is very similar to ultrasound scanning commonly used to visualize the fetus during pregnancy.
A transesophageal echocardiography examination generally lasts 30-60 minutes. The patient is given a mild sedative and the back of the throat is sprayed with a local anesthetic, in order to suppress the gag reflex. Next, a special viewing tube called an endoscope, containing a tiny transducer, is passed through the mouth and into the esophagus. It is carefully moved until it is positioned directly next to the heart. Essentially a modified microphone, the transducer directs ultrasound waves into the heart, some of which get reflected (or "echoed") back to the transducer. Different tissues and blood all reflect ultrasound waves differently. These sound waves can be translated into a meaningful image of the heart, which is displayed on a monitor or recorded on paper or tape. The transducer may be moved several times during the test to help doctors get a better view of the heart.
The patient may be given a mild sedative before the procedure, and an anesthetic is sprayed into the back of the throat in order to suppress the gag reflex.
After the test, it is important to refrain from eating or drinking until the gag reflex has returned--otherwise, the patient may accidentally inhale some of the food or beverage. If a sedative has been given, patients should not drive or operate heavy machinery for at least 10-12 hours. They should avoid consuming alcohol for a day or so, since alcohol may amplify the effect of the sedative.
Transesophageal echocardiography may cause gagging and discomfort when the transducer is passed down into the throat. Patients may also experience sore throat for a few days after the test. In rare cases, the procedure may cause bleeding or perforation of the esophagus or an inflammatory condition known as infective endocarditis. The patient may have an adverse reaction to the sedative or local anesthetic.
A normal transesophageal echocardiogram shows a normal heart structure and the normal flow of blood through the heart chambers and heart valves.
A transesophageal echocardiogram may show a number of abnormalities in the structure and function of the heart, such as thickening of the wall of the heart muscle (especially the left ventricle). Other abnormalities can include blood leaking backward through the heart valves (regurgitation), or blood clots in the left atrium of the heart.