Some surprises are good – and in some cases, they’re even welcome.
Others, however, aren’t – especially those that indicate the potential for or even early warning signs of heart health issues, including coronary artery disease.
Coronary artery disease is a leading cause of heart attacks and generally occurs when plaque builds up, narrowing the arteries. The plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol and calcium.
A coronary artery calcium screening, or scan of the heart, can detect the amount of calcium that’s present, which then is used to calculate a calcium score. When combined with other health information, the calcium score can help determine an individual’s risk of coronary heart disease or heart attack. For those who have higher scores, further testing may be needed and should be discussed with your doctor and/or a cardiologist.
The screening is a quick, painless CT (computerized tomography) of the heart measuring the amount of calcium that’s present in the coronary arteries. The presence of calcium is an early sign of heart disease.
Detecting such deposits before symptoms occur can help prevent future problems, as people can be making positive changes that promote overall cardiac health – including stopping tobacco use, eating healthier and exercising more.
This type of screening is most beneficial and helpful to people who have an intermediate risk for heart disease. They would include those who have one or more risk factors, such as elevated cholesterol, hypertension, tobacco use, diabetes or a strong family history of premature coronary artery disease. Knowing the calcium score also can be valuable to someone who is at an intermediate risk for heart attack and is experiencing chest discomfort.
The calcium score is not useful for those people who have a low or high heart attack risk. If you are young, have normal cholesterol levels, normal blood pressure, do not smoke and do not have a strong family history of premature coronary disease, your heart attack risk is calculated at less than 10 percent. If you’ve already had a heart attack or a procedure such as an angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting to treat coronary artery disease, a calcium score will not give you any additional helpful information.
The entire coronary artery screening process takes approximately five minutes. The patient is hooked up to a standard electrocardiogram or EKG machine, which records the electrical activity of the heart. EKG monitoring is used to synchronize the test to the heartbeat to produce clear, high-resolution images. The actual time spent in the CT scanner is only about seven seconds. No fasting or dye injection is required, and any radiation exposure is extremely small.
The screenings can be a valuable tool in managing your future heart health, and they can be scheduled by calling the Blount Memorial radiology department at 865-977-5566. The $95 tests are self-pay (no insurance, Medicare or Medicaid) at the time of service, but could be a good use of flexible spending account funds as the calendar year winds down.
Dr. Jane Souther is an interventional cardiologist with Blount Heart Consultants.