Coronary calcium scans use a special X-ray test called computed tomography (CT) to check for the buildup of calcium in plaque on the walls of the arteries of the heart.  It shows how much hardening of the artery walls exist in order to determine your risk of heart attack. The test tells your doctor how at-risk you are so you can work together to treat the problem and avoid damage from heart attack or stroke.

What is Computed Tomography?

CT or CAT scans are a diagnostic medical test that produces multiple images or pictures of the inside of the body. It is non-invasive and painless, and takes less time than an MRI.

Preparing for your CT

Doctors ask that you not eat or drink anything, and that you avoid caffeine and smoking for four hours prior to the exam. If you have a known allergy to the contrast material, medications can be prescribed to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. These medications have to be taken 12 hours prior to your exam. You may have to remove your jewelry, and you should wear loose, comfortable clothing. You might be asked to change into a gown depending on what body part you’re getting scanned. If you are wearing an underwire bra, you will have to remove it.

What is my Doctor Looking For?

Your doctor is trying to determine if you have Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) and therefore an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Plaque can build up in your arteries, causing them to harden and narrow, forcing your heart to work harder. Plaque can also cause your arteries to eventually close off entirely. While plaque in the arteries can be treated, doctors have to know how potentially serious the condition is to know whether or not you need treatment. The CT scan is a helpful prognostic tool, and its findings are expressed as a calcium score. Coronary Artery Calcium scoring is another name for this test.

What Are My Risk Factors?

When determining whether or not calcium scoring is required, doctors will take a medical history looking for any of the following:

  •         High blood cholesterol
  •         Family history of heart attack or stroke
  •         Diabetes
  •         High blood pressure
  •         Smoking
  •         Obesity
  •         Physical inactivity

What Can I Expect?

CT scans are quick and easy. You will lay on a narrow table which will slide through a hole in the CT machine. Electrodes (small sticky discs) will be attached to your chest, and to an electrocardiographic machine (ECG) so that the CT scans can be recorded when your heart is not actively contracting. You will be asked to hold your breath for a period of 10 to 20 seconds while images are recorded. You will then have to wait for the technician to determine whether the scans produced high enough quality images for the doctor to use. The procedure takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.  

Your Results

Your radiologist will analyze the images and send an official report to your physician that referred you for the scan. A negative scan means you show no calcification within the coronary arteries. This suggests that CAD is absent or so minimal it can’t be seen. If you receive a negative calcium score, your risk of having a heart attack over the next two to five years is very low.

A positive test indicates that CAD exists, whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms. The amount of calcification will determine your risk. Your doctor will tell you the results of your test and what to expect, and determine if treatment is needed and how extensive treatment has to be. Follow-up exams might be necessary, especially in the case of questionable findings that need additional views or a special imaging technique. You might also need follow-up examinations to determine whether treatment is working or if any abnormality detected is stable or changing.

Avoiding heart attack or stroke is crucial to avoiding some of the most common causes of disease and death for Americans. Working with your doctor to lower your risk is an important part of managing your health and will improve your quality of life.