The camera never lies, and neither do PET scans, electrodes or MRI techniques. Discover how doctors are able to monitor the health of your heart to get a clear picture of what's going on, and without the need to open up the chest cavity.
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A Detailed Picture Emerges
Doctors are able to make an assessment of the immediate health of your heart by taking your blood pressure (with an instrument called a sphygmomanometer) and by taking your pulse. But a more detailed appraisal may be required.
Located just behind the breastbone the heart is a very well protected organ, which can present a challenge to those who want to monitor it. However, there are a number of ways that the organ can be clearly 'seen' with technologies that are able to create a detailed picture of it. Many of these are non-invasive, which means there is no need to 'open up' a patient or insert instruments into the body.
The imaging devices used by medical professionals can scan and study the heart in unprecedented detail to reveal flaws, imperfections, disease and damage and help physicians to diagnose and treat heart-based medical conditions.
This guide to monitoring the heart links to a number of Bright Hub articles that explain some of the common tests, scans and procedures that are used to monitor heart health, how you can prepare for them and what doctors glean from the information recovered.
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Assessing Form, Function and Electrical Activity
Among the first line of tests that are used to build up a complete picture of the state of someone's heart is an EKG which monitors the heart's rhythm and electrical activity, and an echocardiogram (also known as an echo). This provides information on the pumping function of the heart and on the structure of the organ and its valves. Whilst these tests are of short duration (from a few minutes to approximately 30-45 minutes) doctors might also want to monitor your heart over a period of 24 hours. This is a Holter monitoring test where the patient wears a small portable device that records their heart rate and rhythm as they go about their normal daily routine. A hospital stay is not required.
Technologies in common use for checking up on the heart include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission technology (PET). Both imaging techniques share a number of similarities, but how they collect their images is very different.
MRI uses powerful magnetic fields and radio frequency pulses to create detailed pictures of organs and tissues, whilst PET scans use small amounts of radioactive material to create three-dimensional images of the body's processes.
An MRI scan creates pictures of the heart as it is beating, and can produce still and moving images of the organ and the blood vessels near it. A heart PET scan can inform doctors of which parts of the heart are not receiving enough blood.
As exciting and as useful as these technologies are, medical innovation does not stand still and new devices are coming to the fore all the time.
Useful information about the condition of a person’s heart can also be found without needing to look at the organ or registering its electrical activity. A battery of blood tests can reveal clues about heart health as it may contain substances that can help doctors to diagnose heart muscle disease, heart failure, and increased risk of having a heart attack. For example, a lipid blood test measures the fats (lipids) in the blood which can help doctors determine how likely a person is to have a stroke or heart attack.
In addition to blood tests another simple procedure is deployed which can asses is a person’s risk for arterial disease which might be indicative of heart complications. This is the ankle-brachial index test that determines blood pressure differences between two different parts of the body.
There's an app out there for just about anything these days, including neat little programs that allow you to monitor your heart. This is particularly useful if you are into keep fit, whether you are running up a mountain or going for a little jog around the neighborhood.