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Ultrasound Screening for Heart Disease

By Maureen Salamon

Updated October 24, 2008

(LifeWire) - Ultrasound imaging technology has long enhanced the abilities of doctors to screen and diagnose conditions in many parts of the body, particularly during pregnancy. Now, use of ultrasound screening for heart disease in asymptomatic patients is an idea gaining ground because of the ease, safety and cost of the testing.

Using a wand-like device called a transducer placed on the patient, ultrasound testing (also called sonography) uses high-frequency sound waves to transmit images of organs, blood vessels and other anatomy to look for abnormalities. With heart disease, which in some form affects about 80 million Americans, these images can potentially alert physicians to plaques or growing blockages in the carotid arteries of the neck or dangerous bulges known as aneurysms in the abdominal aortic artery.

Research shows that ultrasounds used for these purposes can spot hidden heart disease in patients who have at least two risk factors for the condition, but no prior symptoms. This can help doctors better predict a patient's risk of suffering a heart attack or other cardiac event and pre-emptively prescribe aspirin or another cholesterol-lowering therapy. Ultrasound screening for abdominal aneurysms, for example, can lower the risk of dying in men aged 65 to 74 by more than 50%.

Unlike other cardiac imaging tools such as CT scans, the use of ultrasound is safer, because it does not use radiation. Therefore, ultrasound testing does not present a long-term health risk for cancer, as with some of the other tests. It is also relatively inexpensive, and noninvasive. Read more about noninvasive screening for heart disease here.

However, insurance may not typically cover ultrasound as a screening device for heart disease in otherwise healthy patients. Some doctors are able to justify the procedure to insurance companies if a patient has symptoms that point to an existing medical condition.

"Increased awareness of economic, biologic and environmental costs of cardiac imaging will hopefully lead to greater appropriateness, wisdom and prudence from both the prescriber and the practitioner," writes Eugenio Picano, M.D., of the Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa, Italy, who authored a review article published in the journal Cardiovascular Ultrasound. "In this way, the sustainability of cardiac imaging will eventually improve," adds Picano.


Berman, Daniel S., Rory Hachamovitch, Leslee J. Shaw, John D. Friedman, Sean W. Hayes, Louise E.J. Thomson, David S. Fieno, Guido Germano, Nathan D. Wong, Xingping Kang, and Alan Rozanski. "Roles of Nuclear Cardiology, Cardiac Computed Tomography, and Cardiac Magnetic Resonance." Journal of Nuclear Medicine 47:7(2006): 1107-18. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://jnm.snmjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/47/7/1107>.

Kastelein, John J.P., and Eric de Groot. "Ultrasound Imaging Techniques for the Evaluation of Cardiovascular Therapies." European Heart Journal 29:7(2008): 849-58. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/ehn070v1>.

Korcarz, Claudia E., Jeanne M. DeCara, Alan T. Hirsch, Emile R. Mohler, Bryan Pogue, John Postley, Wendy S. Tzou, and James H. Stein. "Ultrasound Detection of Increased Carotid Intima-Media Thickness and Carotid Plaque in an Office Practice Setting: Does it Affect Physician Behavior or Patient Motivation?" Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography 21:10(2008): 1156-62. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18558473>.

Picano, Eugenio. "Economic and Biological Costs of Cardiac Imaging." Cardiovascular Ultrasound 3:13(2005). 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.cardiovascularultrasound.com/content/3/1/13>.      

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has written for newspapers, websites and hospitals.

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