How Do Ultrasounds Detect Early-Stage Heart Disease?
When people hear the word “ultrasound,” they most often connect it with pregnancy. Even medical practitioners, while they may have studied echocardiograms and sonograms during their medical training, forget that ultrasounds can be a multi-faceted diagnostic tool. But the reality is that the core technology behind ultrasounds can be used for a wide range of medical procedures, not just prenatal check-ups.
Medical professionals in Direct Primary Care, functional medicine, and integrative medicine often try to unearth the root cause of patient symptoms, and this is where ultrasounds come into play. When a patient complains of unexplained chest or upper arm pain, a heart murmur, and/or a history of heart disease, these practitioners may recommend managing diet, starting massage/chiropractic therapy, and making lifestyle changes. A comprehensive heart screening using ultrasound technology rounds out the diagnostic process by giving practitioners the full picture of their patients’ health.
In fact, ultrasounds are the easiest and most affordable ways to prescreen patients for early-stage heart disease.
What is Ultrasound Technology?
Ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to create images of internal bodily structures. Also called sonography, ultrasounds allow doctors to view soft organs without inserting cameras or cutting into the body.
During an ultrasound, a technician will often apply gel to the patient’s skin. This allows the technician to easily maneuver the transducer, which is the device that emits and picks up the high-frequency sound waves. The transducer moves back and forth along the skin allowing the sound waves to bounce off the structures that are the focus of the ultrasound. As the ultrasound machine picks up variations in frequency, it translates the data into an electronic image on the machine’s monitor.
Ultrasounds have been in use since the 1950s. It is a safe procedure that uses low-power sound waves with no known risks.
How Does an Echocardiogram Work?
An echocardiogram is a specific application of ultrasound that uses high-frequency waves produce diagnostic images of a patient’s heart. During the screening, a technician will use a transducer to capture a moving picture of the heart’s valves, chambers, and surrounding tissues. The sound waves bounce off of the heart and return to the transducer as echoes. The echoes are converted into images on a television monitor to produce pictures of the patient’s heart in motion.
There are four different types of echocardiograms: transthoracic echocardiogram, transesophageal echocardiogram, Doppler echocardiogram, and stress echocardiogram. You can read about all types of echocardiograms by clicking here, but the most common and non-invasive are the transthoracic and doppler echocardiograms.
This type of echocardiogram is what most people think of when they think of ultrasounds. It does not require any invasive imaging equipment or strenuous exertion. Despite the name, transthoracic echocardiograms are quite simple. All transthoracic means is that the ultrasound goes through (trans) the chest/thorax (thoracic). Again, this type of echocardiogram is non-invasive and does not cause discomfort in patients. During a transthoracic echocardiogram, a technician will simply run the transducer over the chest to allow the ultrasound machine to produce an image of the patient’s heart.
Vasolabs recommends transthoracic echocardiograms whenever possible because the screening is easy to administer and comfortable for patients.
Doppler ultrasounds measure the pitch and frequency of blood flow using ultrasound technology. Other echocardiograms only allow doctors to view the heart’s structural components, but Doppler tests let doctors see if anything is wrong with a patient’s blood pressure and blood flow.
While a technician performs a Doppler echocardiogram, they may choose to play the audio signal of the blood flow over speakers since the instruments will be able to pick up the sounds of the heart. Both patients and doctors can hear the sound of the blood moving through the heart and the sound of the heart valves opening and closing. More importantly, the ultrasound machine will record audio frequencies as a graph in order to help physicians measure valve function and heart pressures.
How Can an Ultrasound Help Diagnose Early-Stage Heart Disease?
As with any medical screening, an ultrasound must be interpreted by a professional radiologist. Once the radiologist analyzes the screening results, they will speak with the appropriate doctor in order to convey any abnormalities or concerns. Equipped with this potentially life-saving information, the doctor can create a comprehensive treatment plan for their patient.
Ultrasounds can help doctors pinpoint:
- Problems with the valves or chambers of the heart
- Irregularly-sized hearts
- Congenital defects
- Fluid collecting around the heart
- Lower than average pumping capability and muscle weakness
- Blood clots
- Peripheral artery disease
Unfortunately, research studies show that nearly half of all cardiac deaths occur in individuals with no prior symptoms of heart disease. This is why heart disease screenings should be part of a regular patient check-up schedule. Doctors who practice Direct Primary Care, functional medicine, and integrative medicine often benefit from offering their patients affordable and non-invasive ultrasound diagnostic tests.
Want to learn more about how you can offer echocardiograms to your patients? Book a consultation today.