Deciphering the Alphabet Soup of Cardiac Imaging

As medical technology expands, so does the lexicon of abbreviations, commonly used but indecipherable to anyone who is not “living” in that rarified world. Frequently, in professional and commercial publications, perhaps especially during February (or “heart month”), you may see advertisements encouraging people to get one of these “heart scans.” (Don’t!) All the more valuable is a tip for navigating the lexicon of cardiac testing.

One of the latest popular scans is a noninvasive way to look at the coronary arteries: CCTA or cardiac computed tomographic angiography. This scan requires intravenous (IV) injection of a contrast agent. As it requires an IV line it is most accurately described as “semi-invasive.” Additionally, there is some hazard associated with it because the contrast agent may be damaging to the kidneys. The CCTA is a variation of the more generic CT scan, which refers to any test done using a CT scanner on any body part. A CCTA is often done on a multidetector CT (MDCT) scanner. These tests are often preceded by the term 64-slice or 128-slice, which refers to the technology of the scanner. A “heart scan” commonly refers to another type of cardiac CT scan, which can be done on either an MDCT or an EBCT (electron-beam computed tomographic) scanner, an older technology. A coronary calcium scan is noninvasive as it does not use contrast enhancement. It is used to quantify coronary artery calcium (CAC).

Other newer cardiac imaging tests are PET scans—no animals here; it stands for positron emission tomographic scans. These sophisticated scans are done using various radioactive isotopes (and, you guessed it, they have various abbreviations as well). Old standbys for medical imaging are SPECT studies, or single-photon emission computed tomography and echocardiography (no abbreviations here).

To make sense out of the soup, it’s important to include an expansion for each abbreviation at first mention. Now you can be “nourished” by the soup you consume! —Rita F. Redberg, MD, MSc

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