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Why You Might Need a Trip to the Cath Lab

If you’ve ever visited a cardiologist, you may have seen signs for something called the “Cath Lab” and wondered what happens there.

Also known as a cardiac catheterization laboratory, this is an operating room where cardiologists perform a range of minimally invasive procedures. Through cardiac catheterization, your doctor can take a closer look at your heart to assess its health, diagnose potential problems and perform a range of procedures.

Your doctor may suggest a visit to the cath lab for a variety of symptoms or evaluations, including:

  • Unexplained chest pain
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Examination of heart muscle function
  • Suspected coronary artery disease
  • Measuring blood flow, oxygen level and pressure in specific areas of your heart
  • Examination of your coronary arteries
  • Removing a small piece of muscle for biopsy
  • Placing a stent to open a blocked artery

What Happens in the Cath Lab?

During a cardiac catheterization, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube (the catheter) into your body through one of your large blood vessels. Among the most common entry points are the right radial artery (located near your wrist) or the femoral artery (located in your groin.)

This catheter is threaded through this blood vessel to reach your heart, using a series of X-ray images provided by a large imaging machine perched over the operating table. Once the catheter reaches your heart, the cardiologist can perform various procedures, using tiny instruments attached to the tip of the catheter. Among the procedures:

  • Angiography: The catheter injects contrast dye into your heart and arteries, to help them show up better on X-rays.
  • Angioplasty: A blocked or narrowed artery is cleared by gently inflating a tiny balloon at the site of the blockage.
  • Stenting: When a severe blockage is found, a tiny metal scaffold is permanently inserted to reinforce the artery and keep it open.
  • Valvuloplasty: A narrowed heart valve opening is expanded by inflating a small balloon at the site.

The cath lab can also be used for other minimally invasive procedures, including catheter ablation. The procedure uses radiofrequency energy (similar to microwave heat) to treat rapid and irregular heartbeats. Your cardiologist identifies the abnormal heart tissue responsible for the problem and destroys it with the ablation. The lab is also used to implant devices – pacemakers and defibrillators – that help your heart beat regularly.

Advantages of Catheterization

Whenever you are dealing with heart issues, you would rather take the least invasive approach possible. Compared with open-heart surgeries, catheterization procedures are minimally invasive, with less pain and quicker recovery times.

Consider the difference between a stent in the cath lab and a surgical bypass. In an open-heart procedure, your surgeon would have to stop your heart and put you on a bypass machine while you are under general anesthesia. This would be followed by several days in the hospital and a higher risk of complications.

But when done through catheterization, you could show up at the cath lab in the morning and be home the same day, with only a needle stick in your right wrist or groin area. You can be back to normal activities the next day.

Should You Be Worried?

There is a small joke in the world of medicine about judging the severity of a medical procedure: “A minor procedure is when it’s happening to you; a major procedure is when it’s happening to me.”

Of course it is natural to worry whenever your doctor wants to work on your heart. But heart catheterizations have become standard and routine. In fact, it is one of the most common cardiac procedures performed in the U.S., with more than 1 million occurring every year.

And keep in mind that if your cardiologist discovers a problem during a diagnostic procedure, it can often be fixed on the spot – protecting you and your heart against bigger threats down the road.

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