March 2014

Looking at the Heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death nationwide, and it’s a major cause of disability. Finding heart problems early can help prevent more serious troubles later and save lives. Doctors have many techniques for diagnosing heart disease. Among these are imaging tests that take “pictures” of your heart.

A new NIH Web page called “Picturing the Heart” gives a simple overview of 6 imaging tools that look at the heart and its arteries.

Some of these—such as cardiac MRI and echocardiography—can take moving pictures of a beating heart to see how well it’s working. Others—such as cardiac CT and a nuclear heart scan—take specialized snapshots to assess heart function and blood flow.

Two other techniques—coronary angiography and coronary calcium scan—look specifically for signs of clogged arteries in the heart. This type of blockage, called atherosclerosis, happens slowly over time and leads to coronary artery disease. It’s the major reason people have heart attacks. 

Heart imaging scans aren’t right for everyone. Talk to your doctor about your risk for heart disease and recommended tests or screening. For more about heart health and disease, including different heart imaging techniques, see www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/by-category/.