What is Nuclear Cardiology?
Nuclear cardiology is the use of safe, small amounts of radioactive material, called tracers, to take very accurate pictures or video of the heart. Nuclear cardiology can not only provide excellent images of the heart muscle, but it can also tell doctors about the function and health of the heart. That is to say, nuclear cardiology doesn’t just examine what the heart looks like, it sees how well the heart muscle is working. It’s very useful for diagnosing heart disease, identifying damage from a heart attack, or evaluating if a patient’s treatments are working well enough.
During a nuclear cardiology exam, the tracer is injected into a vein and taken up by the heart. Then a special camera, called a gamma camera, takes pictures of the tracer moving within the beating heart. The images can show areas where heart muscle has been damaged or scarred due to a heart attack, or where blood flow within the heart may not be adequate due to blocked arteries.
There are several different kinds of nuclear cardiology tests and each looks at something slightly different. The most commonly used test is called myocardial perfusion. Others include ventriculography, to show the chambers of the heart; PET scans, to monitor blood flow; and MUGA scans, to examine how well the heart is pumping.
Nuclear cardiology tests do not hurt, and do not require anything more than an injection. They are a powerful source of information for patients suffering from heart disease or coronary artery disease.
What is Cardiology?
Cardiology is the study of the heart and blood vessels, and a cardiologist makes sure they are functioning well. Patients see cardiologists for many issues affecting the circulatory system, including:
Hypertension, or high blood pressure
Heart attack prevention and treatment
Congestive Heart Failure, where the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body
Heart transplant evaluation and care after surgery
Peripheral vascular disease, where arteries in the limbs narrow and reduce blood flow
Aneurysm, or a swelling in the blood vessels
Coronary Artery Disease, where the blood vessels delivering oxygen and nutrients to the heart become blocked
After performing a physical exam, a cardiologist may order a number of imaging tests in order to get a better understanding of what disease or complication might be causing problems in the heart and blood vessels. Some of these might include:
An electrocardiogram, which checks the heart’s electrical activity
X-rays to see tissues more clearly
Cardiac catheterization, where a small tube is directed into the heart to test pressure, oxygen levels, and blood flow
Although some cardiologists provide primary care, cardiologists more typically work as consultants to primary care physicians when a heart issue comes up. Cardiologists do not perform surgery, but they can perform “interventional” procedures, such as balloon angioplasty (where a balloon is used to stretch open narrowed veins) or stent placement to keep blood flowing.
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