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Heart Disease Health Center

Heart Tests Your Doctor May Recommend

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By Renee Bacher
WebMD Feature

Preventing a heart attack is a lot easier when you -- and your doctor -- know exactly what's going on in the vessels that carry blood throughout your body. Are they blocked with plaque or free-flowing? To find out, your doctor may recommend a high-tech imaging test that shows a clear image of your arteries. Here's what you need to know about them.

Carotid Ultrasound

For this painless test, an ultrasound technician uses a handheld wand on the outside of your neck. The wand makes sound waves that bounce off the tissue inside the carotid artery in your neck to create images.

The test can detect blockages that can lead to stroke. It determines how narrowed your artery is by combining the images with measurements of how fast blood is flowing.

Who should get it? If your doctor suspects you've had a stroke or mini stroke (if you've had a loss of vision, for example), you're definitely a candidate for this test, says cardiologist Mark F. Sasse, MD. He's an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. If you have a blockage greater than 50%, your doctor may recommend yearly carotid ultrasound testing.

If you haven't had any previous stroke symptoms, your doctor would check you with a stethoscope first. He'll listen to the blood moving through your carotid artery. If he hears a "bruit," a noise related to uneven blood flow, then he might recommend a carotid ultrasound.

Some doctors recommend a carotid ultrasound if you have two or more of these risk factors:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • tobacco smoking
  • a parent or sibling with heart disease or a stroke before age 60
  • a family history of ischemic stroke (caused by a blocked blood vessel to the brain)

Pros: It's easy to perform, doesn't involve radiation, and is relatively inexpensive.

Cons: There's limited evidence that testing prevents stroke. Also, certain differences in your blood vessels can make the test less accurate, and you could need other tests.

Coronary Calcium (Ultrafast CT Scan)

An image of the heart is taken with a standard CT-scan machine in this test. It measures how much calcium has built up in the plaque in your arteries. There's a strong link between the amount of calcium in your arteries and having coronary heart disease, including how widespread the disease is.

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