The High-Tech Heart: What to Expect from Cardiac Catheterization
Your doctor has told you you need to have a test called
cardiac catheterization done, and you’re feeling pretty worried about it. Will
it hurt? Is it dangerous? How do they do it?
How the procedure works
This procedure takes place in the cardiac catheterization
lab. The lab contains special video screens and X-ray machines that can show
enlarged images of blocked areas in the arteries of your heart.
You lie on a table, and you’ll have an intravenous line
inserted. You’ll have fluids and medications inserted through that line. You’ll
generally get medications to relax you and to prevent blood clots from
occurring. You’ll be awake enough to communicate with your doctor during the
During the procedure, the doctor will thread a thin
flexible tube, or catheter, through a small incision in your groin area through
a blood vessel to the area of the artery that is blocked. Before the tube is
inserted, the groin area is shaved and then numbed. The numbing usually stings a
bit as it is going in.
A small amount of dye is injected into the catheter. An
x-ray is taken so that your doctor will be able to see the coronary arteries,
valves and the chambers of your heart.
Once the tube reaches the blockage, your doctor inflates a
tiny balloon that’s attached to the end of the tube. The balloon makes the
artery wider, so that blood can flow to the heart more easily.
When the procedure is over, the doctor removes the catheter
from the heart.
Patients usually describe procedure as “simple and
Gregory Hood, Supervisor of the Cardiac Catheterization Lab
at St. Vincent’s Hospital, says that it’s the unknown that concerns patients the
most. “The doctor or a technologist talk with patients before the test, but
they’re still scared or just plan nervous,” he says. “The thought of sticking a
catheter inside their heart makes them nervous. They believe it will make a big
incision in their leg or groin to get access to the artery, when in fact it is a
needle puncture with an IV or sheath placed into the femoral artery.”
The most common question, says Hood, is, “Is it going to
hurt? I answer by saying that they’ll feel a needle prick in the leg area, which
is the numbing medicine. As it numbs the skin, you may feel pressure as the
sheath is placed into the artery. You have no feeling of the catheter inside
your body,” continues Hood. “God gave us no nerve endings inside our artery.”
The last image that’s taken, or the “grand finale,” as Hood
describes it, “is an injection into the left ventricle of the heart. You will
feel a hot sensation, but some patients describe it as warm, not hot at all.”
The procedure takes between 25 to 40 minutes. “Ten minutes
of that is the set-up by the technologist to get the patient ready,” says Hood.
Hood says that after the procedure, the majority of
patients experience no discomfort. Some complain of back pain from lying on the
table, and some, very few, complain of leg pain.
Patients stay in the hospital from one and half to three
hours, explains Hood. “The discharging nurse will go over discharge orders and
precautions before you’re released. Possible complications are bleeding at the
puncture site or infection. These are seen in about 2 percent of patients after
To prevent complications, you should do no lifting, no deep
knee bends and no excessive stair walking for 24 to 48 hours after the
procedure. After that, you can go back to your normal routine.
Hood says, “The majority of the patients say the procedure
was very simple and painless. Most would recommend it to their friends.”
Lung, and Blood Institute; Gregory Hood, Supervisor, St. Vincent’s Cardiac Catheterization Center.