What can I Expect During a Nuclear Heart Scan?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

During a nuclear heart scan, a camera will be used to image the heart while radioactive tracer material moves through it. This will provide important information about a patient's heart health. The scan should not be painful, although it can be uncomfortable for patients who have trouble lying still, and the length of the test varies, depending on the type of testing being done. It may be necessary to come back for a second set of scans in some cases.

An electrocardiograph machine is connected to a patient during a nuclear heart scan to check for signs of distress.
An electrocardiograph machine is connected to a patient during a nuclear heart scan to check for signs of distress.

Before a nuclear heart scan is performed, a patient interview is conducted. The doctor asks the patient about any allergies or history of heart problems to make sure the patient can safely take the test. On the day of the test, the patient should wear loose, comfortable clothes and plan on showing up to the cardiac clinic or hospital around 15 minutes early in case there is any last minute paperwork to fill out.

Blood pressure is monitored during a nuclear heart scan.
Blood pressure is monitored during a nuclear heart scan.

For the nuclear heart scan itself, the patient will be fitted with a catheter, usually in the arm, to allow the doctor to inject the tracer material. A blood pressure monitor and electrocardiograph will also be attached to the patient to check for signs of distress during the test. For some nuclear heart scans, the patient will be asked to exercise to get the heart rate up, or will be given medication to elevate the heart rate. Next, the patient will be asked to lie down for the imaging part of the scan.

During a nuclear heart scan, the patient will need to lie still. The test can be stressful for patients with claustrophobia, and generally sedatives cannot be provided because they can interfere with heart function. Patients can ask for ear plugs if they will feel more comfortable in a quiet environment, and they may also request blankets for warmth. Deep breathing exercises can help patients stay focused and limit feelings of stress and fear if they are having trouble holding still.

After the test, the patient will be briefly monitored for any adverse reactions to the tracer material, and then released. If patients experience symptoms like a burning sensation, tightness of breath, or dizziness during a nuclear heart scan, they should immediately report those symptoms. Any other physical discomfort should also be reported in as much detail as possible so care providers can provide any appropriate interventions, from halting the test to giving the patient a pillow for more comfort and support.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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