Atherosclerosis - Diagnosis

A doctor may be led to suspect atherosclerosis based on any of the symptoms discussed. A variety of tests is available to confirm the diagnosis. For example, an electrocardiogram (pronounced ih-LEK-tro-KAR-dee-o-gram) measures electrical activity of the heart. An abnormal flow of blood to the heart can change this activity. Electrocardiograms are sometimes performed while a patient is taking part in vigorous activity, such as riding a stationary bicycle. Such tests are known as stress tests.

A coronary artery with atherosclerosis, buildup of waxy deposits inside the blood vessels. (Photograph by Martin M. Rotker. Reproduced by permission of Phototake NYC.)
A coronary artery with atherosclerosis, buildup of waxy deposits inside the blood vessels. (Photograph by
Martin M. Rotker
. Reproduced by permission of
Phototake NYC

An echocardiogram (pronounced ekko-KAR-dee-o-gram) uses sound waves to study the heart. The sound waves produce a pattern (an echo) as they pass through the heart. The echoes provide information about the heart's structure. Blockages in arteries can sometimes be detected by this method.

Radioactive isotopes can also be used to produce pictures of the heart. A radioactive isotope is a material that gives off some form of radiation. The radioactive isotope is first injected into the patient's bloodstream. It travels through the patient's body, giving off radiation. The radiation can be used to form a picture on a screen, somewhat like an X-ray photograph.

Coronary angiography (pronounced an-gee-AH-graffie) is the most accurate way to diagnose atherosclerosis. In this procedure, a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the patient's arm. A catheter is a long, narrow tube that can be pushed through the vein into the patient's heart. A dye is pumped through the catheter into the heart. Then, X-ray pictures are taken of the heart. The dye makes it possible to see structures of the heart in great detail. The presence of plaques can easily be seen.

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