So you’ve decided that unsettling pain, tightness or pressure in your chest is worrisome enough to see a doctor – but now your ticker is racing at the thought of being poked and prodded during the exam! Why do cardiac symptoms lead to so many tests, and what do they all measure anyway?
As some heart conditions can quickly become life-threatening, providers often order a series of tests to confirm (or rule out) the most serious diagnoses, and prevent less-severe conditions from getting worse. While experiencing heart-related symptoms can be stressful in itself, the good news is that many cardiac tests are non-invasive, and the more complicated procedures are often performed under sedation or anesthesia. We’ve summarized some of the most common cardiac tests below to help you prepare for your visit and reduce those pre-appointment jitters!
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG):
This procedure measures the heart’s electrical activity or rhythm – specifically, how long it takes for a wave of electricity to go from one part of the heart to another during a heartbeat. The test is simple to administer: a technician will place small stickers with electrodes on your chest, arms and legs, and then connect those stickers to wires that transmit data to the EKG machine. The machine then records your heartbeat using a series of zigzag shapes on a long strip of paper. These reports help providers identify heart rate and rhythm abnormalities caused by everything from medication side effects to heart attacks.
Chest x-rays show providers the size and shape of your lungs and heart, and can also alert them to potential infections or diseases in the chest cavity. This non-invasive process typically involves donning a hospital gown and standing in front of an x-ray machine, though chest x-rays can also be performed while sitting or lying down. And don’t worry about x-ray radiation adding to your troubles – radiation exposure from chest x-rays is generally lower than what you receive daily from the natural environment!
An echocardiogram uses ultrasound technology to show our doctors the inside of your heart and identify any defects in the muscle or structure. While providers sometimes need to inject dye into a vein to make the heart’s details more visible, typically, echocardiograms simply involve moving an ultrasound wand around your chest to create a complete picture of the heart’s function. More detailed echocardiograms can also be performed by inserting a tube with an ultrasound probe down the throat in a process called a Transesophageal Echocardiogram.
Cardiac Catheterization and Angiogram:
Cardiac Catheterization and Angiograms are used to measure blood pressure and flow within the different areas of the heart, and provide vital information about vessel and artery constriction, potential blockages or even aneurysms that could put you at risk of heart attacks or stroke. This procedure typically requires a brief hospital admission and is performed under sedation or general anesthesia. Cardiac Catheterization consists of feeding small tubes through the heart via an artery or vein in the arm or leg, while angiograms involve injecting special dye into a vessel and taking an x-ray of the site. In some cases, heart defects or blockages can even be corrected during the catheterization process! Cardiac catheterization and angiogram can be performed on an outpatient or inpatient basis as directed by your physician.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses magnet waves to create detailed pictures of the heart and to measure its overall function. To complete the test, you will lie on a table surrounded by the MRI machine for a period of time, typically between 30 and 90 minutes. While the procedure is non-invasive, you may be given an intravenous catheter (IV) so dye can be injected to improve pictures produced by the MRI. Additionally, if you become anxious in closed, tube-shaped MRI machines, anti-anxiety medications may be offered to reduce discomfort.
Computerized tomography (CT) combines multiple x-rays to create a three-dimensional image of the heart. This detailed image is typically clearer than those produced by regular x-rays or angiograms, and helps doctors identify problems with the heart’s structure or function. You may be given an IV with dye to improve the quality of the CT images.
If you have cardiac symptoms that come and go, your doctor may ask you to wear a Holter Monitor to measure your heart rate and rhythm over one to two days. A Holter Monitor is a portable EKG device connected to electrodes that attach to your chest using stickers. The monitor records each and every heartbeat over the period of time that you wear it. Your doctor may also ask you to document your activities during the day to help evaluate the changes in your heart’s function.
Exercise Stress Testing:
Exercise stress testing is actually an EKG test performed while you engage in physical activity – generally, walking or running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. This test measures the impact of exercise on heart function and can help to determine whether certain symptoms are cardiac-related.
As you can see, medical professionals have a wealth of tools available to diagnose and manage heart-related conditions. Crittenton providers are committed to using the latest technology and research to ensure you receive the best cardiac care possible. Contact your primary care provider or the Cardiovascular Services department today to learn more about how our programs can put you on the path to excellent heart health.
Additional information about common heart tests and procedures is available at www.heart.org.