The Medical Minute: Cardiac CTA

By Steven M. Ettinger

Cardiac computed tomographic angiography, or cardiac CTA, is an ultra-fast, noninvasive imaging method that uses X-rays to create detailed pictures of the heart and its blood vessels. Cardiac CTA studies are useful for the evaluation of coronary artery disease, and can provide essential clinical information that magnetic resonance, nuclear, echocardiographic and invasive angiography cannot do as well. In addition, these tests can assess the functional status of the main pumping chamber of the heart (the left ventricle).

Cardiac CTA can help differentiate the absence or presence of mild, moderate or severe atherosclerotic heart disease by showing the amount of plaque that has built up in the arteries surrounding the heart. As a result of this added clinical information, physicians can better formulate a risk-factor profile and make recommendations to patients with regards to lifestyle modifications and the need for specific medical therapy.

If your doctor recommends that you undergo cardiac CTA, you will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. You will lie on your back with your head and feet outside the scanner on either end.

Small electrodes will be placed on your chest and connected to an electrocardiograph (ECG) machine, which records your heart’s electrical activity. You may be given medicines to slow your heart rate and dilate the blood vessels.

Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's X-ray beam rotates around you (modern "spiral" scanners can perform the exam in one continuous motion).

Small detectors inside the scanner measure the amount of X-rays that make it through the heart. A computer takes this information and uses it to create several individual images, called slices. These images can be stored, viewed on a monitor, or printed on film. Three-dimensional models of organs can be created by stacking the individual slices together.

You must be still during the exam, because movement causes blurred images. You may be told to hold your breath for short periods of time. The entire scan should only take about 10 minutes.

The Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute cardiac CTA program brings together radiologists and cardiologists with clinical expertise in imaging and vascular medicine. To learn more about cardiac CTA and the full battery of tests available within the Institute, please visit

Dr. Steven M. Ettinger is a cardiologist and professor of medicine and radiology at Penn State College of Medicine and director of the interventional cardiology program at Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute.

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Last Updated July 27, 2009