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What Is a Coronary Calcium Scan?

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  • Written By: C. Webb
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2014
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A coronary calcium scan is a medical imaging tool used to assess a patient's risk of having a heart attack within the next 10 years. The scan provides pictures of arteries leading to the heart. By measuring calcium deposits visible on the scan, the physician determines the patient's risk level. Patients deemed at moderate risk have a 10 to 20 percent increased chance of having a heart attack within the next decade.

Scan results are not conclusive, but are incorporated with other factors, such as family history, in determining a patient's risk of heart attack. Non-smokers with low blood pressure who are under the age of 55 do not need routine calcium scans, according to the American Heart Association. Conversely, smokers over the age of 65 with high blood pressure typically do not need a coronary calcium scan due to the already obvious risk factors for heart attack. Those in the moderate risk category, based on family history, blood pressure, and other factors, are primary scan candidates; however, patients with strong family histories of heart disease are candidates for the scans, regardless of other factors.

Radiation levels received during a coronary calcium scan are approximately the same as receiving 33 chest X-rays. Due to this risk, physicians typically only order scans for patients not already diagnosed with heart disease. Patients who already survived a heart attack also do not need scans, as their risk is obvious. In addition, pregnant women should not receive scans.

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Scans take approximately 10 minutes to complete. The patient wears a hospital gown and is positioned on an examination table. The scan machine moves around the patient's body and shows the heart's position within the chest. In addition, it details the arteries, including blockages caused by calcium. Scanned images are taken, and the results are recorded.

No preparation is needed before a coronary calcium scan. All medications should be taken as usual, unless a physician instructs the patient otherwise. There may be a waiting period before the scan if the outpatient facility is busy, and the patient may want to bring reading material on the day of the scan.

Results are typically available within two days. Patients found to have calcium deposits in their arteries are referred to a cardiologist for follow-up and monitoring. Possible treatments include a weight-loss program, medication, and exercise. The patient's physician will work with the cardiologist to determine the next step in treatment.

Patients should consult with their physicians to determine whether they need a coronary calcium scan. The test is performed in an outpatient setting at a hospital or walk-in facility. Some health insurance policies cover the cost of scans.

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