The coronary calcium scan is also known as a heart scan, and it’s a different kind of X-ray meant to provide your doctor with images of your heart so that they can determine if there are plaques inside the coronary arteries. As you know, plaques that form inside the arteries can lead to blood flow restrictions, so a heart scan can measure calcified plaque to help your doctor establish a treatment plan.
What’s a coronary calcium scan good for?
By using X-ray technology, a heart scan can give your doctor valuable information on your heart’s health. The images given by the scan will show plaque deposits that are found inside the arteries.
Plaque formations contain a mixture of fat, calcium, cholesterol, and other substances that are found in the bloodstream. The fact that they don’t usually show any signs or symptoms in the early stages makes these formations quite dangerous. There is a very thin line between plaque ruptures and blood clots, which can lead to massive heart complications since they prevent blood from flowing to the heart.
Risks of a coronary artery calcium scan
It’s important to know the risks associated with this type of scan are because you are exposing your body to radiation, so it’s something that should only be done when absolutely necessary. That’s why you should avoid walk-in centers and clinics that advise you to take a heart scan as a primary way to identify potential heart problems.
A heart scan should always be done after a specialist’s recommendation, so if you have a doctor you’ve been seeing for years and knows about your current and past health, always talk to them before having a heart scan.
There are situations where the risk of exposing yourself to radiation outweighs the benefits of the result. Also, not all types of insurance cover a heart scan, which could potentially give you the same information that a blood pressure test could.
Even if you opt for the services of a walk-in clinic, you will still need to see a doctor to interpret the test results, someone like a cardiologist preferably.
What to expect from a coronary artery calcium scan
Much like with other heart-monitoring tests, the coronary artery calcium scan requires that a series of electrodes be attached to your chest. On the other end of the wire is the same device used for an electrocardiogram. This will record your heart’s activity between heartbeats.
During the scan itself, you will lie on a movable table that slides into a tube-shaped device, much like a CT scanner, only your head will be outside of the tube itself. Depending on your specific health situation, you may be administered a pill that slows your heart, in order to make sure that the images are clear.
Patients who are nervous during the procedure may be given medication to prevent them from being too agitated. During the scan, you will be required to stay still and hold your breath for a few seconds. This helps the X-ray take clearer images of your heart.
The result of this test is called an Agastston score, which informs the doctor on the density of the calcium deposits, as well as the total area they occupy:
- If your Agastston score is zero, that means that there are no calcium deposits in the heart. It also means that there are few chances of you having a heart attack in the near future.
- The higher the result of this test is, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. For example, a score that’s between 100 and 300 means you have plaque deposits which can cause heart problems in the next three to five years. When the score is more than 300 that means that you are very likely to have a heart attack soon-ish.
Who should avoid a coronary calcium scan?
Having a heart scan implied means exposed to radiation. Because of that, certain groups of people should avoid this test as the exposure to radiation outweighs the benefits of having the scan in the first place.
The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association guidelines specify that the following groups of people should avoid a heart scan:
- People who are at low risk of developing plaques.
- Those who are at high risk of having coronary artery disease, as the heart scan doesn’t give any additional information to make the radiation exposure worth it.
- People who have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, because the test will not provide the doctor with any more information that could be relevant in monitoring the progression of this condition.
- Women under 50 and men under 40, as calcium deposits are unlikely to be detected in those under these age thresholds.