Your heart is one of the hardest working organs in the body – beating once per second or about 3 billion times in the average person’s lifetime. “Seeing” it in action is an essential part of evaluating, diagnosing, and treating potential cardiovascular conditions.
At UT Southwestern, we use an evolving suite of sophisticated cardiac imaging tests, ranging from echocardiograms to cardiac MRIs, to create a clear picture of your current heart health and where it’s headed in the future.
Because the heart is also a highly complex organ, we can use different imaging tools to assess its many functions. For instance:
- An electrocardiogram (EKG) records electrical signals in your heart.
- A stress test assesses blood flow to the heart muscle during rest and exercise.
- An echocardiogram uses ultrasound waves to create moving pictures of your heart’s chambers, valves, and walls.
Our team also utilizes advanced imaging techniques, such as cardiac CT and cardiac MRI to create detailed, cross-sectional views of the heart and help diagnose complex or rare disorders.
With so many options available, and new imaging enhancements in development, patients can feel overwhelmed by “all the tests.” So, we thought it would be helpful to provide a quick overview of cardiac imaging, from the fundamental to the highly specialized, and explain how each test can help our patients avoid or overcome heart disease.
The choice of test is individualized, of course. Your doctor will recommend which tests, if any, are right for you based on your current health and symptoms.
Heart 101: Pumps, valves, pipes, and electric wires
Cardiac imaging helps us look more closely at the four systems of the heart, which are all interconnected. This is how I typically describe them to my patients:
1. Pumps, which send blood to the body: The right side of your heart receives blood and pumps it to your lungs, where the blood picks up oxygen. The left side pumps the oxygen-rich blood back out to fuel the body.
2. Valves, which control blood flow to the main chambers of the heart: Four valves open and close to ensure blood flows properly in one direction.
3. Pipes, which carry oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle: The heart’s plumbing, or coronary arteries, delivers oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle so it can continue doing its pumping work. Atherosclerosis, or “hardening” of the arteries, occurs when coronary arteries narrow due to the buildup of cholesterol plaques. If the blockages are severe, patients can experience chest pain during activity because the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood.
4. Electric wires, which tell the heart when to squeeze: Cells carrying an electrical signal trigger your heart to pump at a normal, regular rhythm.
We use different imaging tools to evaluate each of the four systems, and often we’ll use more than one test – or what’s called multimodality imaging – to zero in on a problem that may involve multiple systems of the heart.
A close-up look at noninvasive heart tests
Most cardiac imaging is noninvasive, meaning it doesn’t require any incisions, and we can gather a lot of information about your heart from outside the body. The tests ladder up based on the patient’s symptoms and risk of cardiovascular disease.
Basic cardiac imaging
Advanced cardiac imaging
Getting an inside look at heart disease
As much as we can learn about your heart from outside the body, some procedures are effective at diagnosing and treating heart disease from the inside.
For instance, our expert interventional cardiology team performs a procedure called a coronary angiogram, also known as a cardiac catheterization or a “heart cath,” which allows us to visualize the heart arteries by using a thin, flexible tube (catheter). The catheter is inserted into a small puncture in the wrist or groin and then gently advanced to the heart. Injection of contrast or dye allows the interventional cardiologist to look for severe blockages and potentially “fix” them during the same procedure using small metal tubes known as stents.
The future of cardiac imaging
Heart disease continues to be the No. 1 cause of death around the globe, but advancements in cardiac imaging could play a vital role in changing that statistic. Ever-more sophisticated imaging tools, coupled with the power of artificial intelligence (AI), will allow us to visualize the heart’s systems in better and faster ways. We will also be able to detect diseases more quickly and accurately which will improve treatments and outcomes for our patients.
UT Southwestern’s heart team, ranked No. 1 in Texas and No. 11 in the nation for cardiology and heart surgery by U.S. News & World Report in 2021, is very well positioned to guide patients through the exciting world of cardiovascular imaging, particularly as new, more advanced imaging tools emerge. Our team of cardiologists are highly trained in these testing modalities, and we pride ourselves on recommending the safest, most appropriate, and most cost-effective cardiac imaging for our patients.
We also carefully interpret the results, so you can see what we’re seeing – and feel confident in your diagnosis and treatment recommendations going forward.