A heart CT scan can give more information about what’s happening inside your heart, but it comes with substantial risks you don’t want to ignore.
What is a heart CT scan?
A heart CT scan, also called a coronary computed tomography (CT) scan, is an imaging test that uses X-rays to capture detailed pictures of your heart and can generate a three-dimensional image. Your doctor can get more information about what’s happening inside your heart, particularly with the coronary arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.
What is The Most Common Reason for a Heart CT Scan?
Your doctor will usually order a heart CT scan if you’ve had typical coronary artery disease (CAD) symptoms, like chest pain or shortness of breath.
Even if you haven’t had typical CAD symptoms, your doctor may think you have risk factors that make it more likely you could have a cardiac event, like a heart attack or stroke, and more information is warranted.
Some risk factors for CAD involve lifestyle and dietary habits that cause inflammation, including:
- Poor Diet
- Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
- Gut Dysbiosis
- Chronic Stress
- Poor Sleep Habits
- Lack of Movement
- Lack of Sunshine
- High Blood Pressure
- Abnormal Lipids
- High Toxin Levels
- Chronic Infections
- History of Radiation Exposure
Your doctor may believe a heart CT scan will show whether you have CAD and how far it has progressed.
What Can Heart CT Scans Detect?
The heart CT scan can identify calcified plaque deposits that have built up under the inner lining of the arteries, called the endothelium. Plaque deposits usually result from a build-up of fat and other substances that have made their way into the endothelium and have hardened or calcified.
Once the doctor assesses all the pictures from the scan, your heart will receive an Agatston score, also called coronary artery calcium (CAC) score. The higher the score, the more you are at risk of having a heart attack.
The CAC scores are:
|Zero||No plaque with a very low risk of a future coronary event|
|1-100||Low risk of future coronary event|
|101-400||Increased risk of future coronary events|
|>400||High risk of a coronary event|
Many doctors believe the heart CT scan and CAC score can identify heart problems early and help determine an appropriate medication regimen.
How is a Heart CT Scan Done and How Long Does It Take?
A heart CT scan is typically done within a hospital or clinic setting. Individuals are often asked to wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing to the scan since they must change into a gown before the procedure.
Heart CT scans are done with or without intravenous (IV) contrast (dye) to better visualize your structure. If your doctor has requested contrast, you will receive an IV before the procedure.
Then, the technician will position you on the table, lying on your back, and place electrodes on your chest. The technician will then attach wires from an electrocardiograph (ECG) machine to the electrodes. The ECG will record the electrical activity of your heart.
The table will slowly move you through the CT scanner, and you will be asked to hold your breath for 10-20 seconds while the images are recorded. The scan itself typically takes about ten minutes, but with preparation, the appointment is usually scheduled for 30-45 minutes.
What is The Difference in a Heart CT Scan vs. an MRI?
One primary difference between a heart CT scan and a cardiac MRI lies in the technology used to capture the images of your heart. A heart CT scan uses X-rays to produce detailed 3D images of the heart and blood vessels.
In contrast, a cardiac MRI uses radio waves, magnets, and computer technology to create detailed pictures of the heart. The cardiac MRI can diagnose heart valve problems, pericarditis, cardiac tumors, and damage from a heart attack.
A heart CT scan exposes the body to radiation, whereas an MRI does not. However, both MRIs and CT scans may use contrast dyes. MRIs often use intravenous (IV) gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCAs) to improve heart muscle and blood flow visualization. Studies show that these contrast agents come with health risks, some of which are significant.
What Are The Risks of Heart CT Scans?
Radiation and cancer risk are always a concern with CT scans. The scan exposes your body to the same amount of cell-damaging radiation you would receive from up to 800 X-rays.
A high CAC score will likely lead to even more diagnostic tests for heart disease, which may expose you to more radiation, and there is no guarantee they will provide clinically valuable results while continuing to put you at further risk of developing cancer.
Why We Don’t Recommend Heart CT Scans
We don’t recommend having a heart CT scan for a few reasons. First and foremost, we don’t believe exposing yourself to radiation is safe or practical when there are better ways to assess your coronary arteries and the potential or already existent CAD.
Besides the radiation, abnormal and incidental results can lead to more diagnostic, sometimes invasive, testing or prescription medications that may do more harm than good. There is also a chance you will receive a CAC score of 0. While this may seem like good news, it can lead to complacency and does not necessarily mean you are healthy. There are better, more advanced testing methods that can help you achieve a higher level of wellness.
What Are The Alternatives To Heart CT Scans?
Several viable alternatives to a heart CT scan don’t involve cell-damaging ionizing radiation, and the results can be just as accurate and informative without putting yourself at risk.
Vascular ultrasounds are safe, non-invasive diagnostic tests that can determine the extent of plaque buildup in the walls of your arteries. A carotid intima-media thickness test (CIMT) can determine how much plaque buildup you have in the inner lining of your carotid arteries in your neck.
There are also regular carotid ultrasounds that evaluate blood flow in the carotid arteries, but a CIMT can measure the degree of plaque and inflammation in the inner lining of the artery. The CIMT can also differentiate between soft plaque (the type that can rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke) and hard plaque (more stable, calcified plaque that can become large enough to obstruct blood flow).
In addition to vascular ultrasounds, Natural Heart Doctor offers several levels of testing that can assess for CAD and guide treatment depending on the extent of your arterial disease.
There is a reason why cardiovascular disease is called the “Silent Killer.” Heart disease and arterial plaque buildup don’t happen overnight, and sometimes don’t experience symptoms until it’s too late.
Meanwhile, it’s never too late to reduce your heart attack or stroke risk. Starting simple with changes to your diet, regular exercise, managing stress, and spending time in the sun is a good start. Following the Eat Well, Live Well, Think Well philosophy covers all this, and more.
We also have several options for NHD lab testing when you want an in-depth assessment of your current health status, starting with Level One, which covers a broad range of cardiovascular and inflammatory issues and can help guide further evaluation and interventions. We also have higher levels of testing if you’ve already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and want to delve even deeper into some of the underlying causes of your current state of health.
All lab testing includes a review with a Certified Natural Heart Doctor Health Coach. The review and consultation allow you to discuss the problems that have brought you to this point in your journey and your goals for a more natural and holistic approach to cardiovascular health and well-being.
Before exposing yourself to damaging radiation with a heart CT scan, let the NHD guide your treatment with safe, evidence-based testing to assess your risk level and help identify the extent of existing CAD.