Cardiac imaging is a form of medical imaging which is used to get a close look at the heart and circulatory system. There are a number of different ways to look at the heart through medical imaging, each with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Doctors may order an imaging study of the heart to learn more about a medical condition, to rule out cardiac problems, or as part of a general assessment of patient health. Like other forms of medical imaging, cardiac imaging is designed to be minimally-invasive, and it can be performed as an outpatient procedure.
Some types of cardiac imaging include: x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and echocardiography. These techniques all involve looking at the heart from the outside of the body, using specialized cameras to isolate the area of interest and create a picture. With something like an x-ray, the doctor gets a static picture of the heart, while echocardiography can be utilized to look at the heart in action, and to see how the heart responds to stress.
In some forms of cardiac imaging, radioactive contrast materials may be introduced to the body and followed as they move through the heart. With the use of a camera which can pick up the signature of these contrast materials, the doctor can look at things like the health of the veins around the heart. The contrast dye is naturally flushed from the body within a few days.
Other forms of cardiac imaging may be a bit more invasive. In a transesophageal echocardiogram, for example, a tube with a small transducer is threaded down the patient's esophagus and used to get a picture of the heart from inside the body. This technique is favored in cases where more detail is required, because the resulting echocardiogram is not occluded with lung tissue and other distractions. For the patient, this procedure can be uncomfortable, and sedation is usually provided to make the experience more pleasant.
When deciding upon a cardiac imaging technique, the doctor usually considers the patient's unique case, and the specific goal of the imaging. He or she will order the test which seems most suitable, and discuss the reasoning behind the test and its results with the patient. Usually, the technician or doctor administering the imaging study is happy to explain the procedure to the patient, and patients should not be afraid of asking questions or communicating concerns, especially if they are nervous or stressed.