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What are Heart Catheters? Do I need one?

Cardiac catheterization, also known as cardiac cath or heart cath, in layman’s terms is a medical procedure to examine the overall health and functioning of your heart. The doctor inserts a skinny, hollow tube in a large blood vessel, either near your neck, arm, or groin, which leads to your heart. Once inside the vein or artery, catheters are advanced using x-ray guidance.

How it works?

A heart catheter is usually performed to diagnose diseases of the heart valves, muscle, or coronary arteries. There are several ways the doctor can detect irregularities. He/she can measure the pressure and flow of blood in your heart to spot any irregularities, and coronary angiography can be done to find any blockage in the arteries. Coronary angiography involves injecting a contrast dye that’s easily visible in X-rays through the catheter and makes finding the blockage easy.

Why people need cardiac catheterization?

  • For coronary angiography to find out any narrowed or blocked coronary arteries
  • For coronary angioplasty to open up narrowed or blocked coronary arteries
  • To check blood flow and pressure in all the four chambers of the heart
  • Take samples of blood from your heart
  • Look for defects in valves or chambers, as well as examine the pumping ability of the pumping chambers
  • Perform biopsy by taking a small piece of the heart

Dangers of catheter procedures

Just like any other procedure done on your heart or blood vessels, heart cath carries certain risks, however, major complications such as heart attack or stroke are exceedingly rare. Some of the risks associated include:

  • Bruising and bleeding caused by the catheter tube
  • Tearing the of the heart tissues
  • Blood clotting
  • Damage to the artery
  • Arrhythmias (uneven heart rhythms)
  • Allergic reactions
  • Infection
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Going through a heart catheterization

While the doctor will take care of the catheterization, there are certain things that you have to keep in mind before and after the procedure. When preparing for cath, make sure you follow all the instructions given by your doctor. Typically, they recommend fasting six to eight hours before the procedure and avoiding certain foods during the 24 hours before the cath. Make sure your doctor is aware of any allergies you might have or any medication you’re on, and you may need to ask someone to drive you, especially on the way back home.

Recuperating after the test is key and can involve remaining onsite for a few hours. Pressure is usually applied to stop the bleeding, and you might not be allowed to leave the bed. During these hours, heart rate and other vital signs are continuously checked. If you’re a senior citizen or are weak, you should consider an assistive device for at least few days after the procedure to aid mobility and daily tasks, check these out. The doctor will also give written instructions on what you should or should not do at home. Make sure you get that piece of paper and follow all the instructions.

When to call your doctor

While the physician will advise you when to reach out to them, don’t ignore if your leg or arm with the puncture goes numb, keeps tingling, or turns purple or blue. If the puncture site seems to be bruised, swells, or fluid starts to come out, this is another red flag. Call 9-1-1 if the swelling happens fast or bleeding from the puncture wound won’t stop. 

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