Coronary Heart Disease Screening Tests (CAD)

  • Medical Author:
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Pharmacologic stress test

During a pharmacologic stress test, certain medications are administered which stimulate the heart to mimic the physiologic effects of exercise. One of these medications is dobutamine, which is similar to adrenaline. Dobutamine is carefully administered to gradually increase the heart rate and strength of the contractions of the heart muscle. Simultaneously, echocardiography or radionuclide imaging is performed.

Alternatively, a medicine called adenosine is administered, which simulates the physiology of the coronary artery circulation during exercise. Adenosine is combined with radionuclide isotope imaging to provide a very accurate test for the detection of significant coronary heart disease. A newer agent, regadenoson (Lexiscan), is often used as it seems to be better tolerated. Pharmacological stress testing is commonly performed in individuals who are thought to be at high risk for significant coronary heart disease and who are scheduled for major non-cardiac surgical procedures. These people often are unable to perform exercise stress testing due to the underlying condition for which they require surgery. In this setting, pharmacological stress testing is invaluable in assessing the cardiac risk of patients prior to surgery.

Are there other tests for coronary heart disease that are noninvasive?

CT scanning

A new noninvasive test for the detection of coronary heart disease is electron beam computerized tomography (EBCT), or calcium scoring. Unlike the above mentioned stress tests that measure the heart's physiology, EBCT is designed to measure calcium deposits in the coronary arteries.

In individuals with coronary heart disease, the plaques which make up the blockages contain significant amounts of calcium, which can be detected with the CT scanner and the amount of blockage is calculated by calcium scoring. This test will identify calcium in blockages as mild as 10%-20%, which would not be detected by standard physiological testing. When such mild blockages are detected, however, the only recommended therapy is risk factor modification (cholesterol lowering and cessation of smoking if applicable), and adjunctive use of aspirin and certain vitamins; such therapy would be advised in all persons with risk factors for coronary heart disease, regardless of the results of any noninvasive tests.

Calcium scoring may be very helpful in convincing people to change their lifestyle or take their medicines, as a score that is not zero implies that the blockage process is starting, and likely will progress unless lifestyle changes are made. It is important to realize that calcification is a function of age, and in younger people (men under 50, women under 60) the calcium score is less helpful when low.

A more elaborate modality is CT angiography (ultrafast CT). This is a non-invasive (no catheter involved) form of angiogram, but still involves dye exposure and radiation, and is less precise than a coronary angiogram. This is still a rather new modality, and its role is still being defined.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/6/2016

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