Harvard Heart Letter

High-tech heart scans: Who might need one?

CT angiography is one of several tests doctors can use to assess your heart's arteries.

For more than half a century, cardiologists have relied on a procedure known as invasive coronary angiography, a test that can reveal dangerous narrowings in the arteries that supply the heart. The test uses a special dye that shows up on x-rays, which is delivered to the heart through a thin tube (catheter) that's snaked through a blood vessel in the leg or arm. As a result, rare but sometime serious complications can occur, including bleeding at the insertion site or damage to the artery.

A noninvasive alternative that doesn't involve a catheter— known as computed tomography angiography or CTA—has been available for about a decade. Today, it's one of several techniques used to evaluate people with chest pain with a presumed cardiovascular cause.

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