Coronary Calcium Scan

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Recent advances in technology make it possible to capture well-focused, detailed pictures of the inside of your heart. Using the latest advances in high-speed computed tomography (CAT SCAN) imaging, coupled with sophisticated computerized 3-D imaging and post-processing techniques. 

A coronary calcium CT Scan is quick and comfortable. Swedish Issaquah Imaging and Swedish Cherry Hill Imaging are making this technology available as part of a comprehensive program for preventing and managing heart disease.

The well-known risk factors for heart disease — such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes — can be useful for indicating how healthy a heart is. But they don't tell the whole story: Even if you don't have any known risk factors, you could still be at risk.

A cardiac CT scan for coronary calcium is a non-invasive way of obtaining information about the presence, location and extent of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries—the vessels that supply oxygen-containing blood to the heart muscle. Calcified plaque results when there is a build-up of fat and other substances under the inner layer of the artery. This material can calcify which signals the presence of atherosclerosis, a disease of the vessel wall, also called coronary artery disease (CAD). People with this disease have an increased risk for heart attacks. In addition, over time, progression of plaque build up (CAD) can narrow the arteries or even close off blood flow to the heart. The result may be chest pain, sometimes called "angina," or a heart attack.

Because calcium is a marker of CAD, the amount of calcium detected on a cardiac CT scan is a helpful prognostic tool. The findings on cardiac CT are expressed as a calcium score. Another name for this test is coronary artery calcium scoring.

In fact, 450,000 Americans each year, the very first symptom of a heart problem is an unexpected, sudden heart attack. A heart attack happens when plaque ruptures in your coronary arteries, leading to the sudden blockage of blood flow to the heart. There's a well-established relationship between coronary plaque and calcified plaque.. The goal of cardiac CT scan for calcium scoring is to determine if CAD is present and to what extent, even if there are no symptoms. It is a screening study that may be recommended by a physician for patients with risk factors for CAD but no clinical symptoms.

What to expect

Coronary calcium CT is quick and noninvasive. No special preparation is necessary in advance of a cardiac CT examination. You should continue to take your usual medications, but should avoid caffeine and smoking for four hours prior to the exam.

You should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to your exam. You may be given a gown to wear during the procedure.

Metal objects, including jewelry, eyeglasses, dentures and hairpins, may affect the CT images and should be left at home or removed prior to your exam. You may also be asked to remove hearing aids and removable dental work. Women will be asked to remove bras containing metal underwire. You may be asked to remove any piercings, if possible.

Who interprets the results and how do I get them?

A radiologist with expertise in supervising and interpreting radiology examinations will analyze the images and send an official report to your primary care physician or physician who referred you for the exam, who will discuss the results with you.

A negative cardiac CT scan for calcium scoring shows no calcification within the coronary arteries. This suggests that CAD is absent or so minimal it cannot be seen by this technique. The chance of having a heart attack over the next two to five years is very low under these circumstances.

A positive test means that CAD is present, regardless of whether or not the patient is experiencing any symptoms. The amount of calcification—expressed as the calcium score—may help to predict the likelihood of a myocardial infarction (heart attack) in the coming years and helps your medical doctor or cardiologist decide whether the patient may need to take preventive medicine or undertake other measures such as diet and exercise to lower the risk for heart attack.

Follow-up examinations may be necessary. Your doctor will explain the exact reason why another exam is requested. Sometimes a follow-up exam is done because a potential abnormality needs further evaluation with additional views or a special imaging technique. A follow-up examination may also be necessary so that any change in a known abnormality can be monitored over time. Follow-up examinations are sometimes the best way to see if treatment is working or if a finding is stable or changed over time.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

The goal of cardiac CT scan for calcium scoring is to determine if CAD is present and to what extent, even if there are no symptoms. It is a screening study that may be recommended by a physician for patients with risk factors for CAD but no clinical symptoms.

The major risk factors for CAD are:
  • high blood cholesterol levels
  • family history of heart attacks
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • cigarette smoking
  • overweight or obese
  • physical inactivity

What are the limitations of cardiac CT for calcium scoring?

A person who is very large may not fit into the opening of a conventional CT scanner or may be over the weight limit—usually 450 pounds—for the moving table.

CAD, especially in people below 50 years of age can be present without calcium (non-calcified plaque) and may not be detected by this exam.

Not all health insurance plans cover cardiac CT for calcium scoring.

A high heart rate may interfere with the image quality of the test.

Exactly how your treatment or prevention for heart attacks should be modified according to your calcium score remains uncertain.

Call us to schedule an appointment

If you're concerned about the condition of your heart, a coronary calcium CT scan may be right for you. Talk with your doctor, and if a scan is ordered for you, give us a call to schedule.