Cardiac catheterization is a procedure in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the heart. Cardiac catheterization is used diagnostically to obtain important information about the heart and its arteries. It is frequently used to secure information about the pressure and flow of blood within the heart, as well as to collect blood samples. The procedure is not only useful for viewing the heart valves at work, but also for finding defects in the movement of the heart wall.
Typically, cardiac catheterization is performed by a cardiologist. However, radiologists, technicians, and nurses often play key roles in cardiac catheterization procedures as well. The procedure is typically performed in a hospital. In some cases, admission to the hospital the night before the procedure is required, while in others, patients are admitted on the day of the procedure, on an inpatient or outpatient basis.
A patient awaiting cardiac catheterization is usually given a mild sedative. The sedative is intended to help the patient stay relaxed during the procedure. For the procedure, an intravenous (IV) line is inserted into a blood vessel in the patient's arm, neck, or groin area. The chosen area is carefully cleansed prior to IV insertion, and a local anesthetic is injected into the skin to reduce discomfort at the site.
Once the IV is in place, a thin tube, called a catheter, is inserted through the IV and into the patient’s blood vessel. Using the utmost care and under the guidance of a special x-ray machine, the catheter is threaded into the heart. A special dye is injected into the catheter to provide contrast during the procedure, and real-time pictures or movies are taken. Doctors and other medical personnel present at the time of the procedure are able to view images of the heart, its chambers, and blood vessels.
Cardiac catheterization can last from one to several hours. Some people feel discomfort at the IV site. However, the use of local anesthetic often reduces sensation to a feeling of pressure at the insertion point. Patients with IVs placed in the groin area are typically required to lie on their back for a period of time following the test. This is necessary to control bleeding.
Cardiac catheterization is a valuable diagnostic and treatment tool, but it carries certain risks. Some individuals experience bleeding at the injection site, pain, or infection. Though serious complications are rare, they can include arrhythmia, cardiac tamponade, low blood pressure, hemorrhage, stroke, and heart attack. Damage to blood vessels can also occur, and there is a small risk of kidney damage from the contrast dye. In most cases, the benefits of cardiac catheterization outweigh the risks involved in undergoing the procedure.