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Heart Disease Health Center

MRI Scans Can Save Hearts in the ER

High-Tech Imaging Spots a Heart Attack Faster
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Sept. 25, 2002 -- A high-tech moving image of the heart may help emergency room physicians spot heart-attack victims faster and prevent further damage. New research shows magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be useful in screening patients who complain of chest pain because it rapidly displays the cause of heart problems.

"It turns out that only a very small percentage [20%] of people who come into the ER with chest pain are actually having a heart attack," says Robert S. Balaban, PhD, scientific director of the laboratory research program at the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

Usually, to check for signs of a heart attack, doctors look for changes in heart activity using an electrocardiogram (EKG) or changes in the levels of blood enzymes that indicate heart damage. But by the time those signs become apparent, usually several hours later, damage to the heart has already been done.

Rather than waiting for those changes to occur, Balaban says an MRI scan can identify patients having heart attacks before serious damage happens. The benefits are not only in identifying patients earlier but also in initiating treatment earlier.

Balaban recently presented the preliminary findings of his study on using MRI as a diagnostic tool in heart disease at a conference in Washington sponsored by the American Medical Association.

In the study, a non-invasive, 30-minute MRI session was used to screen for abnormal heart activity immediately after patients were admitted to the hospital for chest pain. Researchers found that the MRI test correctly identified 18 of 212 patients as having a heart attack much faster the other methods.

The MRI test was also effective at spotting other potentially dangerous heart problems, such as clogged arteries, in people with no other signs of heart disease.

Although installing an MRI unit for use as a heart-attack screening tool in an emergency room may seem expensive, Balaban says it would pay off in the long run.

"It's very expensive to keep the millions of people who are admitted for chest pains but are not having a heart attack in intensive care while waiting to see if had they had a heart attack," says Balaban. He says it could also lower the long-term costs of healthcare by treating people with heart failure and other serious heart problems before irreversible damage occurs.

In addition, Balaban says an emergency room MRI could be used to evaluate stroke patients and to examine patients who complain of stomach pain, which is a frequent cause of trips to the emergency room.

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