Why Get A Coronary Calcium Scan
A coronary calcium scan, also known as a heart scan or calcium scan test, is a test that uses X-ray technology better known as a computed tomography (CT) scan to assess your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. The test does this by taking pictures of the arteries that transfer blood from your heart throughout the body to check for calcium.
The calcium that this test searches for is part of a material that can buildup on your arteries known as plaque, which is composed of calcium and fatty deposits. In the beginning, this plaque has a waxy texture, but over time it can harden and become calcified.
Calcified plaque is an issue because it can clog your coronary arteries and slow blood flow, causing difficulties for oxygen-rich blood to circulate through your body. This plaque can also break open and lead to a blood clot within your blood vessels, creating high risk of a heart attack.
When To Get Checked
There are many simpler tests that can check for signs of heart disease, so a coronary calcium scan is only recommended if you have multiple risk factors for coronary artery disease. Since the test exposes you to a small dose of radiation, doctors will typically recommend other tests if you do not have an increased risk of heart disease.
Risk factors for heart disease and stroke include your age and gender, your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and whether you smoke tobacco. If these factors determine you are at a moderate chance of heart disease, your doctor has the most reason to recommend this test. For those with a low chance of heart disease, the test isn’t likely to show any calcium, while those with a high chance are unlikely to learn anything they didn’t already know.
If you have a moderate chance, the coronary calcium scan will tell you how much calcified plaque is in the arteries of your heart. This can help you and your doctor determine if you need to make any lifestyle changes or begin medications.
How The Test Works
Before your visit, your doctor may ask that you avoid caffeine or smoking for at least 4 hours before the test. When you arrive at the hospital, you must take off any clothing and jewelry above the waist and put on a hospital gown. A technician will then attach sensors called electrodes to your chest.
These connect to an EKG machine, which records the electrical activity of your heart during the exam and coordinates the timing of the X-ray pictures so they are taken in between heartbeats, when the heart muscles are relaxed. During the scan, you will lie back on a table which slides into the CT scanner, which is similar to a hollow tube, and your head will be outside of the scanner at all times.
You may receive medication before the exam to help keep you calm and slow your heart rate, so the results will be more accurate. The exam typically takes only 10 to 15 minutes, and once it is completed you are able to resume your regular routine.
What The Results Mean
The results of the scan gives you a number that is known as an Agatston score. You may receive the results the same day as your scan, though it may take longer. If your number is zero, this means that the scan did not discover any calcium. The higher your calcium score, the greater your risk is of developing heart disease.
A score of 100 to 300 means you have moderate plaque deposits, which suggests a somewhat high risk of developing heart disease over the next few years. A score of over 300 means that you have a severe risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a heart attack.
If you receive a high score, your doctor will help you come up with a plan that may include lifestyle changes, such as increasing your physical activity, switching to a healthier diet, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol consumption. Your doctor may also prescribe you medications that will help lower your risk of developing heart disease, including medications for high blood pressure or high cholesterol.