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What Does an Echocardiogram for Pulmonary Hypertension Involve?

Posted on April 14, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Steven C. Pugliese, M.D.
Article written by
Dawn Ferchak

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a form of high blood pressure involving the arteries in the heart and lungs (the pulmonary arteries). It can be difficult to diagnose PH because its symptoms often resemble those of other cardiovascular (heart-related) and pulmonary (lung-related) conditions. Confirming a diagnosis of PH usually involves several laboratory tests, including an echocardiogram.

An echocardiogram, also known as an “echo,” is an extremely safe and common test used to help diagnose and treat PH. An echocardiogram is a noninvasive test. It uses high-frequency sound waves to create moving images of the heart.

Here, we will explore echocardiograms for PH, including what the test involves, how it can be used in the diagnosis of PH, and what an echocardiogram’s results can tell your doctors.

What Does an Echocardiogram Involve?

Echocardiograms are performed by ultrasound technicians. Having an echocardiogram is generally simple and painless. The ultrasound technician first applies a gel to your chest. They then use a probe that is attached to an ultrasound machine. The probe transmits ultrasound waves into your chest as the technician moves the probe over your skin. The waves produce echoes in your heart, which are detected and converted into pictures by a computer.

The pictures generated by the echocardiogram appear on the screen of the ultrasound machine. These moving images show the shape and size of the heart, and they can help reveal the health of the heart’s different structures.

An echocardiogram takes about an hour to complete. Once the procedure is finished, the images will be sent to your doctor so they can determine if any problems exist. Your doctor will look for information about the chambers of your heart, including their size, how they are functioning, and how their valves are working. If you are diagnosed with PH, you may have regular echocardiograms to help track disease progression.

How Are Echocardiograms Used in Pulmonary Hypertension?

Echocardiograms play an important role in treating people who are experiencing cardiovascular symptoms. They can also help screen people who are at an increased risk of developing pulmonary vascular disease.

Echocardiography is not a definitive tool for diagnosis. The gold standard for diagnosis is a test known as a right-heart catheterization. However, an echocardiogram is a vital test used in the diagnosis of both PH and pulmonary arterial hypertension. Echocardiograms can help determine the probability that a person has PH. They can also point to cardiovascular problems that may require further investigation or treatment, such as heart failure.

Detecting Changes in the Heart

Because echocardiograms produce moving images of the heart, they can reveal how well the heart’s different structures are working, including its valves and chambers. Your doctor can use these results to calculate your heart’s functions, including pulmonary circulation, cardiac output (the amount of blood the heart can pump in one minute), and the pressure in the pulmonary arteries as they beat (pulmonary artery systolic pressure). Echocardiograms can also show changes or abnormalities in the heart (such as enlargement or thickened chambers) that can result from high blood pressure and may point to PH.

Echocardiograms can also detect right ventricular hypertrophy (RVH), a condition in which the muscles of the right ventricle of the heart enlarge. Determining whether a person is experiencing problems with right ventricle function (known as right ventricle dysfunction) is an important part of determining the prognosis of PH. RVH is a condition that can occur in diseases other than PH, such as valvular heart disease, and it may require treatment on its own. Evidence of RVH on an echocardiogram is vital information for your doctor, regardless of whether you have been diagnosed with PH or not.

Evaluating Treatment Efficacy and Disease Severity

If you have already been diagnosed with PH, echocardiograms may also be used to determine the cause and prognosis (outlook) of your disease. For instance, if an echocardiogram indicates that your right ventricular function or pulmonary arterial pressure has not improved, your health care provider may recommend changing your treatments or increasing the dosages of your current medications. Echocardiograms can also determine the severity of your PH based on several physical changes or markers, including the size of the right ventricle.

Support for Pulmonary Hypertension

If you have been diagnosed with PH, it can be hard to find people who understand what you are going through. Having a strong community to provide support and listen when you need somebody to talk to is important for everyone. That’s why there is myPHteam — the social network for those living with pulmonary hypertension. More than 43,700 members ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with pulmonary hypertension.

Have you undergone an echocardiogram for pulmonary hypertension? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by posting on myPHteam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Steven C. Pugliese, M.D. is affiliated with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, serving as the director of the pulmonary embolism response team, co-director of the comprehensive pulmonary embolism program, and an assistant professor of clinical medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Dawn Ferchak is a content creator with over 15 years of experience. Her areas of expertise include health and wellness, including clinical areas such as rare diseases, orthopedics, oncology, and mental health. She writes for both professional and consumer audiences. Learn more about her here.

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