Cardiac imaging includes several types of tests that take pictures of your heart and surrounding structures. Healthcare providers use the tests to diagnose and manage heart conditions. Examples of cardiac imaging methods are chest X-ray, cardiac MRI and nuclear cardiac stress testing.
Cardiac imaging, also called cardiovascular imaging, is a broad term that includes several ways to take pictures of your heart and surrounding anatomy.
The main types of cardiac imaging are:
Some cardiac imaging procedures may be combined, such as CT scan with coronary angiogram or PET and CT scans. Your healthcare provider might recommend several different tests to better understand your heart health.
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Healthcare providers use cardiovascular imaging for many reasons, including to:
Cardiac imaging can be helpful in diagnosing and managing many heart conditions, including:
An echocardiogram (echo) uses ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves) to produce images. It creates videos of your heart’s chambers, valves, walls and blood vessels. Doppler echocardiograms can also be used to measure the flow of blood through different chambers of your heart.
An echocardiogram helps measure your heart’s pumping action and the severity of heart failure. It can also help identify a valve problem, infection, blood clot or hole in your heart. Since this test can give a lot of information without using radiation or radioactive substances, heart doctors frequently use it.
A cardiac CT scan uses a computer to combine multiple X-rays. This creates many different, detailed images at different locations in your heart, which can be read directly, or reconstructed to form three-dimensional views of your heart and surrounding structures from many angles.
Your provider may order a CT scan to look for artery blockages or structural problems. They may also order this test when other tests don’t provide enough information. Heart surgeons or interventional cardiologists may use it to help map your heart to see if a procedure or surgery is right for you.
A nuclear cardiac stress test uses a radioactive substance called a tracer to show blood flow in and around your heart. Your healthcare provider injects the tracer into your bloodstream and then uses a special camera to take pictures of your heart. The test is performed once when you’re resting and once after you exercise.
The test is also called myocardial perfusion imaging (MPI).
Types of nuclear cardiac stress tests include:
A PET scan is another type of nuclear imaging test. It uses a radioactive tracer, which diseased areas of your heart absorb. The PET camera can then detect where the tracer was absorbed.
A cardiac PET scan focuses on the metabolic function of heart tissues. It can detect heart damage after a heart attack in the form of scar tissue, and can also be used in cardiac stress testing. A PET scan is often combined with a CT scan.
A SPECT scan is a nuclear imaging test. It uses a radioactive tracer to show blood flow and metabolic function of heart tissues. Your provider injects the tracer into a vein, and the tracer travels to your heart. The SPECT camera can then detect where the tracer was absorbed.
A coronary angiogram is a special X-ray test that's performed during cardiac catheterization. Your healthcare provider inserts a long, thin tube (catheter) through an artery in your groin or wrist that travels up to your heart. The provider injects dye through the catheter into your bloodstream. Then the X-ray machine takes videos as the dye moves through the blood vessels around your heart. The test is used to locate clogged or blocked arteries.
A heart MRI uses radio waves and magnets to scan your heart instead of radiation. An MRI creates very detailed images. It can show all the different parts of your heart in detail and give an accurate picture of how well they’re working. It can help diagnose many conditions by detecting heart damage like scar tissue or inflammation.
A MUGA scan evaluates the function of the lower chambers of your heart (ventricles). The scan is also called radionuclide ventriculography.
A healthcare provider injects a radioactive tracer into a vein. A special camera detects the radiation and uses it to create moving images of the beating heart. A MUGA scan takes pictures at specific times during every heartbeat.
The test measures ejection fraction, the amount of blood your heart pumps out during each heartbeat (contraction). Providers rarely use this test, but it can be a way to measure your heart’s pumping function. It's most often used to measure ejection fraction at different times, during long courses of chemotherapy or other medications that can have side effects on your heart.
Your healthcare provider will explain how to prepare for your specific tests. Instructions may include:
Be sure to tell your healthcare providers:
Cardiovascular imaging is safe because the procedures are non-invasive or minimally invasive. Rarely, people have allergic reactions to the dye used in some cardiac imaging tests.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cardiac imaging allows healthcare providers to take pictures of your heart, blood vessels and surrounding anatomy. It shows blood flow to and around your heart. Cardiac imaging tests can help your provider diagnose and manage heart conditions. Talk to your healthcare provider about why they recommend certain tests and what they’re looking for.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/03/2022.
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