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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 (coronary arteries). This test is used to check for heart disease in an early stage and to determine how severe it is. Coronary calcium scans are also called cardiac calcium scoring.
The coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle. Normally, the coronary arteries do not contain calcium. Calcium in the coronary arteries may be a sign of coronary artery disease (CAD).
A CT scan takes pictures of the heart in thin sections. The pictures are recorded in a computer and can be saved for more study or printed out as photographs.
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Your doctor may want you to have a coronary calcium scan if it can help you and your doctor make decisions about how to lower your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
This test might be most helpful for people who do not have heart disease but who are at medium risk for heart disease. Your doctor can help you know your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Your doctor will look at things that put you at risk, including blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and your age, sex, and race.
A coronary calcium scan is not advised for routine screening for coronary artery disease.footnote 1 This test may not tell your doctor any more about your risk for heart disease than your risk factors do.
This screening test is not for you if:
This test may not be right for you if you are a man younger than 40 or a woman younger than 50. This is because younger people typically do not have much calcium buildup in their arteries yet.
You don't need to do anything before you have this test. But you may be asked to not smoke or not eat or drink anything that has caffeine for a few hours before your test.
Tell your doctor if you get nervous in tight spaces. You may get a medicine to help you relax. If you think you'll get this medicine, be sure you have someone to take you home.
You will need to remove any jewelry that might be in the way of the X-ray picture. You may need to take off some of your clothes. If so, you will be given a gown to use during the test. For some CT scans, you may be able to wear your clothes. If so, wear loose clothes that don't have zippers or snaps.
Small pads or patches called electrodes will be put on your chest. Wires connect these to an EKG machine that records the electrical activity of your heart on paper. The EKG records when your heart is in the resting stage, which is the best time for the CT scans to be taken.
During the test, you will lie on a table connected to the CT scanner. The scanner is a large doughnut-shaped machine.
The table slides into the round opening of the machine, and the scanner moves around your body. The table will move a little every few seconds to take new pictures. You may hear clicking or buzzing sounds as the table and scanner move.
You may be asked to hold your breath for 20 to 30 seconds while pictures of your heart are taken. It is very important to hold completely still while the pictures are taken.
During the test, you are usually alone in the scanner room. But the technologist will watch you through a window and talk with you during the test.
A coronary calcium scan takes about 30 minutes.
You won't have any pain from the X-rays during the coronary calcium scan. But the table you lie on may feel hard and the room may be cool. You may find it hard to lie in one position for a long time.
The chance of a coronary calcium scan causing a problem is small.
After you have the test, talk with your doctor about your results.
Your test result is a number that is your calcium score. The score can range from 0 to more than 400. The higher your score, the greater your chance of having a heart attack. The score might be helpful if you are aren't sure whether to take a statin to lower your risk of a heart attack. Your doctor will look at your calcium score as well as your age, your health, and your other test results such as your cholesterol level.footnote 2
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, et al. (2018). Risk assessment for cardiovascular disease with nontraditional risk factors: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA, 320(3): 272–280. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2018.8359. Accessed October 24, 2018.
Grundy SM, et al. (2018). 2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA guideline on the management of blood cholesterol: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on clinical practice guidelines. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, published online November 8, 2018: S0735. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2018.11.003. Accessed January 28, 2019.
Current as of:
January 10, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineStephen Fort MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
Current as of: January 10, 2022
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Stephen Fort MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
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