Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, chest pains…these are classic warning signs of heart trouble, or are they?  According to U. S. News and World Report, more than one third of people who have a fatal heart attack experience none of the typical warning signs.  That's why some medical professionals recommend people at risk for a heart attack have a CT heart scan. While the procedure sounds daunting, it is quick and painless.  Knowing more about a CT scan helps quell some of the anxiety over having the test.

What is the difference between a CT scan and a standard X-ray?

A CT scan shows more details than a standard X-ray.  The X-ray beam rotates around the body, creating a computer-generated cross section of an organ.

How long does the procedure last?

From start to finish, the heart scan takes minutes.  While some facilities require changing into a gown, others do not.  With a few electrodes attached to the chest, patients lie on a platform, and it moves into the scanner.  Some patients may receive medicine to slow the heart rate.  When instructed by the technician, patients hold their breath for a few seconds so that the scanner can generate a clear image, and the procedure is complete.

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What are doctors looking for?

Doctors are looking for evidence of calcium deposits.  When looking at the image produced by the heart scan, calcium deposits can be seen as bright white spots.  These spots help doctors determine risks for a possible heart attack.

A more extensive procedure called CT angiography can produce detailed images of the arteries.  With this scan, doctors look for evidence of narrowing of the arteries, which often indicates coronary artery disease.  This procedure requires the injection of dye into the vein.

What happens after the heart scan?

After the procedure, the doctor discussed the results with the patient and any possible treatment recommendations.  There are no special safety measures or precautions required following a CT scan.  Patients can participate in normal, everyday activities.

When it comes to heart health, the motto "better safe than sorry" often comes in handy.  People who are at risk for a heart attack can play it safe by having a CT heart scan.  At risk groups include individuals who are overweight or obese, smokers, people with high blood pressure or diabetes, or those with a family history of heart disease.