Coronary calcium, deposits of calcium in the coronary arteries around the heart, is dangerous because it indicates that these arteries may become blocked. If the coronary arteries become totally blocked, it deprives the heart of oxygenated blood flow, which leads to a heart attack. Heart attacks can be fatal or cause long term damage for patients, making them extremely undesirable.
Having calcifications, as deposits of calcium are known, is an indicator that someone has coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is one of the leading causes of death, making it a major cause for concern when it is identified in a patient. Patients with this condition develop deposits of calcium and other materials in their coronary arteries which gradually block them. In some cases, patients may experience health problems before a heart attack, and in others, a blockage may occur suddenly and without prior warning. If coronary calcium is identified, it indicates that a patient is at an increased risk of a heart attack, which gives a patient warning and suggests that the patient may want to embark on some lifestyle modifications.
Coronary calcium can be identified in a coronary calcium scan, a scan performed in a CT machine. If calcifications are present, they will show up as bright white spots on the scan. These scans are recommended to people at intermediate risk. People with low risk generally do not benefit from testing, while people at high risk, such as people with multiple risk factors for coronary artery disease, should already be taking steps to reduce the risk of heart attacks, and would therefore not benefit from a coronary calcium scan.
If coronary calcium is identified, a doctor may make some recommendations to deal with the coronary artery disease. For severe cases, cardiac stents can be inserted to hold the arteries open, ensuring that bloodflow will not be occluded. Stenting procedures require general anesthesia and can be very traumatic for the patient's body, so they are usually only recommended when a doctor thinks that they are absolutely necessary.
Chances of having calcifications in the coronary arteries rise with age and risk factors. A 20 year old athlete, for example, is unlikely to have deposits of coronary calcium, while a 70 year old smoker probably has at least some coronary calcium. Before getting a scan, patients should discuss the pros and cons with their doctors and determine whether or not the scan is truly necessary.