Coronary Calcium Score

Calcium score may predict chances of heart attack

If you are at risk for coronary artery disease (CAD)—even if you do not have any symptoms—your doctor may recommend a coronary calcium scan or cardiac CT for calcium scoring. A cardiac CT scan uses X-ray technology to take pictures of different cross-sections of your heart. The scan is projected onto a computer screen or printed on film so a radiologist can see whether or not you have calcium buildup in your arteries.

Arteries can become clogged over time with plaque, consisting of fat, calcium and other substances, which can affect blood flow to and from the heart and other areas of the body. Left unchecked CAD can lead to heart attack and other heart problems. Knowing your calcium score can help you make necessary lifestyle changes to reduce further plaque buildup. It can also help your doctor determine medication appropriate for your condition.

"A CT scan for calcium provides a calcium score from zero to more than 400. A score of anything more than zero means you have calcium buildup. A score of more than 100 means you are more likely to have a heart attack in the future."

What to know in advance about getting a coronary calcium scan

On the day of the scan there is no special preparation other than not smoking, not eating, and not drinking anything caffeinated for several hours before the scan. (Caffeine can affect your heart rate and therefore accuracy of your score.)

In some cases, you may be asked to change into a gown for the scan. Otherwise, be sure to wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing. A technician will attach electrodes to your chest to measure the electrical activity of your heart during the scan. You will then be asked to lie on a table that slides into the CT scanner, which looks like a big white donut.

While the scanner moves around the body taking photos from different angles, you will be asked to hold your breath and be still for short bursts of time. In between scans, you’ll be able to communicate with the technician. The entire process is usually complete within 30 minutes.

Once your scan is complete, the results will be reviewed by a radiologist and shared with your doctor. Your doctor will explain your results to you and discuss next steps, if needed.

Concerns about having a cardiac CT scan for calcium scoring

While a CT scan is completely painless, it may be awkward or uncomfortable to lie on a hard table or to hold your breath intermittently. You will also be exposed to a small dose of radiation. Radiation from a single CT scan is not dangerous. If you have concerns about radiation exposure, be sure to talk with your doctor in advance. If you are pregnant, you should talk with your doctor about whether the benefit outweighs the risk of having a scan during pregnancy. You may wish to wait until after delivery.