What is a Coronary Scan?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

In order to test a person's heart for possible blockages, a doctor may order a coronary scan. Also known as a coronary calcium scan or heart scan, a coronary scan photographs the arteries inside the heart. This allows a doctor to check for the presence of calcium, which can indicate a case of coronary artery disease.

Doctors may order a coronary scan for patients who may have a risk of heart attack.
Doctors may order a coronary scan for patients who may have a risk of heart attack.

Coronary scans are considered noninvasive procedures. Prior to ordering the exam, a doctor will often check the patient's blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and medical history. He or she may also conduct a physical exam, as well as a risk assessment that includes personal habits and lifestyle choices.

During the coronary scan, electron beam computerized tomography (EBCT) scan procedures are run to help make the calcium within the arteries visible. The scan is brief; it usually only takes minutes to complete. This procedure does involve a high exposure to radiation. One EBCT scan can amount to the same amount of radiation generated by 20 to 30 x-rays. Because of this, multiple scans can increase a patient's cancer risk.

Alternatively, an angiogram can be ordered. During this procedure, computerized tomography (CT) angiography will be used instead. While this procedure does not involve the amount of radiation the previous procedure does, it can cause an allergic reaction in some patients.

Either scan will provide imaging of the calcium in the body. The calcium deposits will be visible as bright white spots. The technician performing the scan will then send the results to the patient's doctor for interpretation.

Doctors may order a coronary scan for patients who may have a risk of heart attack. Patients with a history of other heart problems or other possible symptoms of heart disease may also be asked to have the procedure completed. A heart scan can prove if the symptoms are truly indicative of a possible heart attack.

Since coronary artery disease is a leading cause of heart attacks, findings from a coronary scan can be very helpful. These tests are particularly useful for patients with borderline conditions, such as high cholesterol or blood pressure. Patients who smoke or exhibit some family history may also benefit from a heart scan.

Heart scans are not beneficial for everyone. People with a low risk of heart disease have not been found to benefit from the test; nor have people with a very high risk, or those who have already experienced heart attacks. The coronary scan is generally beneficial in determining cases that are difficult to pinpoint based on ambiguous evidence or symptoms.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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