A heart scan also termed as a coronary calcium scan, is a specialized X-ray test. It can provide pictures of your heart, which may help your doctor detect and measure calcium-containing plaque in your arteries. A plaque inside the arteries of the heart can grow, which might lead to a restriction of blood flow to the muscles of the heart. Measuring calcified plaque with a heart scan might allow your doctor to identify possible coronary artery problems before you develop any signs or symptoms.
Using the test results, your doctor can determine if you require heart medication or lifestyle changes for reducing the risk of heart attack or any such heart problems.
The calcium that the scan is meant to look for is a part of the plaque. It’s partly made of fat and calcium, though it is not good for the heart. Though plaque is waxy at first, it builds up slowly over time and can harden. You might hear doctors term this as a ‘calcified’ plaque. It can be a problem for two reasons.
First, hard plaque in your arteries is like having a clog in a pipe, which can slow down your blood flow. This means that some parts of your body do not get enough of the oxygen which is needed. If the plaque collects in your heart’s arteries, you might feel chest pain as well as discomfort, which is termed as angina.
The second problem is that the plaque can break open, which can lead to a blood clot and this might even lead to a heart attack.
A heart scan can help you know how much-calcified plaque is in the arteries of your heart. After getting the results, you and your doctor can decide if any changes are required to your lifestyle or any medicines would be needed.
During this test, your body is exposed to radiation, which is why it is worth remembering that this test is not for everyone. You should consider this scan, only if your doctor feels that it might be able to tell you something useful.
Your doctor can find out how likely you are to get heart disease, based on various factors, which includes:
- Your age
- Your gender
- Your cholesterol level
- Whether you smoke
- Your blood pressure
Before the procedure begins, the technician will be attaching sensors, which are known as electrodes to your chest. These connect to an electrocardiogram, which can record your heart activity during the exam, as well as coordinate the timing of X-ray pictures between the heartbeats when the heart muscles are relaxed.
During the scan, you will lie on your back on a movable table, which slides into the tubelike CT scanner. Your head will likely remain outside the scanner the whole time. It is likely that the exam room will be cool.
You will next receive medication that will slow your heart. This will help in getting clear images. You might also be given any medication to help you remain calm if you feel too anxious, or nervous.
Next, you will need to lie and hold your breath, for a few seconds, while the pictures of your heart are taken. The technician will operate the scanner from a room next door, but he/she will be able to see and talk to you the entire time. The entire procedure will not take more than 15-20 minutes.
After the Procedure
The result of your test is generally given as a number which is termed as an Agatston score. This score will reflect the total area of calcium deposits as well as the density of the calcium.
A score of zero indicates that there was no calcium seen in your heart. This suggests that there is a low chance of developing a heart attack in the future. When calcium is present, then the higher your score is, the higher the risk of your heart disease is.
A score of 100 to 300 indicates moderate deposits of plaque. This is associated with a high risk of heart attack or any other heart disease over the next 3-5 years.
If your score is over 300, this indicates a very high to severe heart disease as well as heart attack risk.
You will need to discuss the results of the heart scan with your doctor. Depending on the outcome, any more or more of the following might be required:
- No change to the current treatment plan
- Different medication or increase in the dose of medication
- Changes to your exercise routine and diet
- Additional tests
- New weight-loss goals
- Follow-up appointments for monitoring your health and treatment plan