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Also called a cardiac catheterization, a heart catheterization helps determine the condition of your heart muscle, valves, and arteries. It can also identify problems such as blocked or narrowed arteries. During the procedure, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into an artery and guided to the coronary arteries. Then a special dye is injected; once the dye shows up on the x-ray screen, your healthcare provider can see any blockages that may be present.

Heart Catheterization: An Overview

Heart catheterization (also known as cardiac catheterization or just "cardiac cath") is a diagnostic procedure that allows your doctor to study the condition of your heart, including the muscle, valves, and arteries.
If you have been experiencing symptoms because of a heart condition, including chest pain, lightheadedness, breathing problems, or fainting spells, this procedure will allow problems such as blocked or narrowed arteries to be identified. If any problems are discovered, your healthcare provider can recommend ways to treat them.

What Happens During the Procedure?

To begin the catheterization, your healthcare provider first chooses an artery for the catheter entry site. Most commonly, an artery in the groin area of the leg is used, but an artery in the bend of the elbow may also be chosen. Once this site is chosen, the area will be scrubbed with a special disinfectant soap and may also be shaved.
Your healthcare provider will then numb the area with some numbing medication. Once the area is numb, your healthcare provider will insert an introducer, which is a small, hollow, plastic tube, into your artery. You may feel some pressure or slight discomfort as the needle guides the introducer into the artery. A guide wire is then lowered into your artery and a catheter (another small, flexible, hollow tube) is then inserted over the wire and carefully advanced to your heart, through the aorta, and to the coronary arteries. The catheter movement is viewed on an x-ray screen. You will not feel the catheter as it moves through your blood vessels. However, you may experience the feeling of a "skipped" heartbeat as the catheter moves through your heart. This is normal.
Once the catheter reaches the coronary arteries, dye is injected into them. You may feel a heat flash or some nausea for about 30 seconds when the dye is injected. This special dye shows up on the x-ray screen and allows your healthcare provider to see the blockages that may be present. Your healthcare provider will repeat the injection of dye several times, looking at the arteries from many different angles.
After your arteries have been examined, the catheter will be redirected to your left ventricle. You will feel a 20- to 30-second heat flash when a large amount of dye is injected into the ventricle. This is to test how your ventricle is contracting and if your valves are functioning properly.
During the heart catheterization, your healthcare provider will talk to you and explain each step along the way. Your participation and feedback will be needed. For example, you may be asked to cough in order to help move the dye out of your coronary arteries. Also, you will be asked to hold your breath for three to five seconds while x-ray pictures are being taken to prevent blurring of the pictures.
During the heart catheterization, it is important to let your healthcare provider know if you are experiencing:
  • Any chest or back pain
  • A tight squeezing feeling in your chest or between your shoulder blades
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe headache
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in your vision.
These sensations might indicate that something is not right.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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