Looking inside your heart

One of the tools available to doctors to see the heart in action is the echocardiogram. This uses ultrasound waves to image the heart as it beats, so the cardiologist can tell whether it’s contracting correctly and that the heart muscle is a healthy shape. I volunteered to be a guinea pig…

Clare – I’m Clare Ward-Jones; I work for Phillips Healthcare and my role is a cardiac ultrasound applications specialist. We’ve got a machine the ETHIC and that is the supreme ultrasound machine for cardiology. We can do a 2D scan on you, we can also do 3D images so we can get a 3D model of the heart.

  • The machine is the same as that used for a scan on a pregnant woman and relies on ultrasound beams which are sent out from the end of the probe and bounce back when they hit structures in the body.
  • Patients must lie on their left-hand side to bring their heart closer to the front of the chest meaning the ultrasound has to travel a shorter distance and therefore produces a clearer image on screen.
  • Electrodes are also applied to the patient to monitor the heart rate during the procedure – mine measured 87 which lies between the normal rate of 60-100 beats per minute.
  • Jelly is applied to the skin to remove any air between the probe and the skin which ultrasound cannot travel through.

Rick – My name is Rick Steeds; I’m a consultant cardiologist. I’m particularly interested in cardiovascular imaging and I’m the current President of the British Society of Echocardiography.

  • Echo sounds are very good at showing the structure of the heart; how strong the muscle is; whether the valves work; whether they leak or whether they’re narrowed, and whether there’s damage to the heart, for example, from a heart attack.
  • The images of my heart show two of the four chambers and the valves between them opening and closing.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

The Heart of an Athlete

How does repeated exercise impact your heart? To find out I spoke to St George’s University of London heart specialist Sanjay Sharma. He’s the medical doctor for the London Marathon, the England football team and Andy Murray…

  • Professional athletes push themselves to the limits and regularly do more than 10-15 times the recommended amount of daily exercise.
  • Athlete’s heart is a medical condition that involves up to a 20% increase in the thickness of heart muscles and a 10% increase in the size of the cavities in the heart.
  • At rest the heart pumps 5 litres of blood around the body, whereas during exercise this can increase to 25-30 litres.
  • Your heart behaves like any other muscle in your body and will increase or decrease in size depending on your level of fitness.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Simulating Operations

Doctors need to practice for years to get good at performing often very tricky procedures, but rather than make mistakes on real patients, modern technology means it’s now possible to rehearse complicated operations using simulators first. And it can be very realistic, and very stressful, as I found out when Gareth Wills from Vascular Perspectives had me threading a tube into a pretend coronary artery, one of the blood vessels that can become blocked and cause a heart attack…

  • The wire is 35 thousandths of an inch in diameter and is inserted into the radial artery int the wrist
  • It’s then threaded up through the arm and across the top of the chest until descends down the aorta and joins up with the heart
  • A tube is then threaded along the wire to allow fluorescent dye to be injected onto the blood vessels of the heart
  • This can be seen under X-ray and any problems or blockages can be identified
  • The procedure is generally performed on patients complaining of chest pain at rest or after exertion
  • Using the simulator allows doctors to practice in a low-risk environment

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

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