Maybe you’ve heard about a coronary calcium score, but like many, don’t know exactly what it means. Mitchel Kruger, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton and at Cardiovascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, describes it as a type of screening that uses a specialized computed tomography (CT) scanner that counts the number of calcium-containing plaques inside the arteries. Ideally, it’s used as part of a comprehensive approach in detecting heart disease, and not as a standalone procedure.
“Coronary calcium scores can be a critical tool in detecting a patient’s coronary health because plaque can restrict blood flow to the heart,” Kruger says. “The number of plaques identified by the screening gives us a significant amount of insight into the patient’s heart health, leading us to prescribe treatments, including medications and lifestyle changes to improve health and prevent the advance of heart disease.”
He points out that the location of the calcium plaques is critically important when analyzing coronary calcium score results. “A higher score indicates a higher risk, but when comparing two patients with similar scores, the patient with a high concentration of plaques in one area of the heart system is at greater risk than a patient whose plaques are distributed across a broader area.”
Although coronary calcium scores typically aren’t covered by health insurance, the good news here is that they’re inexpensive and widely available — typically less than $100. And getting screened is easy and doesn’t take much time. In fact, you may be in and out of the hospital or screening facility in less than 15 minutes.
Kruger says adults who have increased risk factors like elevated cholesterol or a family history of heart disease and stroke should talk to their primary care physician or cardiologist about whether the screening may be right for them.
A coronary calcium score may be an important tool in detecting the presence or potential for heart disease, but Kruger doesn’t recommend it for everyone. “Although exposure to radiation levels from the test have decreased as technology has improved in recent years, I wouldn’t recommend the test for young women who have a family history of breast cancer,” he adds.
Kruger says that a coronary calcium score may give some patients peace of mind. For others, the results may serve as motivation to make positive lifestyle changes, like eating a heart-healthy diet, losing weight or getting more exercise.
So what should you expect if you’re getting a coronary calcium score? There’s very little preparation involved. You’ll be asked to lie on a movable table inside the CT scanner, and there’s good news for the claustrophobic among us: your head will be outside the scanner throughout the procedure, which typically takes less than 5 minutes.
After the test, patients will be contacted by their doctor who will share their personal score based on the amount of calcium detected and plaque accumulated in the scan. Doctors may use the score to determine a treatment plan — or alter the current plan — to reduce the patient’s risk or to improve and maximize cardiovascular health.
“Patients should understand that a coronary calcium score is one piece of information about health, and it shouldn’t be used exclusively to diagnose heart disease,” Kruger states. “I want to emphasize that a first step is for patients to speak with their primary care physician or cardiologist as part of an overall journey to prevent heart disease and to improve health.”
Texas Health Denton offers coronary calcium score testing through cardiac diagnostic imaging using its 512-slice computed tomography (CT) scanner. The equipment uses less radiation and provides quieter, faster scans. Compared with traditional diagnostic tools, the scanner shows physicians a 3-D high-definition image of the heart, and typically provides more conclusive results to determine whether a patient will need further treatment.
“The resolution the CAT scan provides is without equal, and the patient is exposed to less radiology than traditional equipment,” Kruger adds “I’m very proud of the services provided to patients through the amazing team of radiologists and physicians on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton.”