Your child's doctor may initially suspect a problem because he or she hears a heart murmur during a routine exam. A heart murmur is a sound that occurs when blood flows through the heart or blood vessels fast enough to make a sound that a doctor can hear with a stethoscope.
Most heart murmurs are innocent, meaning that there is no heart defect and the murmur isn't dangerous to your child's health. Some murmurs, however, may mean blood is flowing through your child's heart abnormally because he or she has a heart defect.
Tests to diagnose a congenital heart defect
If it's possible your child has a heart defect, your doctor or your child's doctor may order several tests to see if your child has a heart problem. In addition to a regular physical exam, these could include:
- Fetal echocardiogram. This test allows your doctor to see if your child has a heart defect before he or she is born, allowing your doctor to better plan treatment. In this test, your doctor performs an ultrasound. The sound waves from the ultrasound are used to create a picture of your baby's heart.
Echocardiogram. Your child's doctor may use a regular echocardiogram to diagnose a congenital heart defect after your child has been born.
In this noninvasive test, your child's doctor performs an ultrasound to produce images of the heart. An echocardiogram allows the doctor to see your child's heart in motion and to identify abnormalities in the heart muscle and valves.
- Electrocardiogram. This noninvasive test records the electrical activity of your child's heart and can help diagnose heart defects or rhythm problems. Electrodes connected to a computer and printer are placed on your baby's chest and show waves that indicate how your child's heart is beating.
- Chest X-ray. Your child may have a chest X-ray to see if the heart is enlarged, or if the lungs have extra blood or other fluid in them. These could be signs of heart failure.
- Pulse oximetry. This test measures how much oxygen is in your child's blood. A sensor is placed over the end of your child's finger to record the amount of oxygen in your child's blood. Too little oxygen could suggest your child has a heart problem.
Cardiac catheterization. In this test, a thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel at your baby's groin and guided through it into the heart.
Catheterization is sometimes necessary because it may give your child's doctor a much more detailed view of your child's heart defect than an echocardiogram. In addition, some treatment procedures can be done during cardiac catheterization.
- Cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This type of imaging is becoming increasingly used to diagnose and evaluate congenital heart defects in adolescents and adults. Newer MRI technology provides faster imaging and higher resolution than other methods, such as echocardiography.