Electron beam computed tomography (EBCT or EBT) sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie but in fact it is an imaging technique that takes X-rays of the heart and coronary arteries.
EBCT is similar to the more frequently used computed tomography (CT or CAT scan) but has slightly different applications. EBCT is used less often because the equipment is expensive and not widely available.
While a CT scan takes images that are slices of your heart, the EBCT camera moves in a spiral. This spiraling approach can create clearer images of the heart even while it is in motion. Over the past 20 years, electron beam computed tomography has been shown by research to be a helpful tool in identifying atherosclerosis and other signs of heart disease.
When you get an electron beam computed tomography scan, you will lie on a table under an arch-shaped machine while the imager moves to take pictures of your heart and coronary arteries. You may be given an injection of a contrast dye that will highlight the structure of your coronary arteries and heart for the pictures. The test is quick and you can return to normal activities immediately afterwards.
A Closer Look at Electron Beam Computed Tomography
One of the reasons that doctors may order electron beam computed tomography is to get your calcium score. If you have not already had a heart attack or stroke, this score can help your doctor find out whether you are at risk for a heart disease event in the next 10 years. A review of research shows that the higher your calcium score, the more likely you are to have atherosclerosis that threatens your long-term health.
Calcium in the arteries is an absolute index of the presence of atherosclerosis, says cardiologist Tomasz P. Stys, MD, in practice with Sanford Health Partners in Sioux Falls, S.D. Calcium scoring is frequently used for detection of a patients plaque burden. There is some literature proving that if you have calcium score over 400, then the severity of blockages is high with a score less than 100, you have mild blockages.
The usefulness of calcium scoring is under debate in part because you can have calcification in your arteries without being at serious risk for a heart disease event, but Dr. Stys stresses that younger adults may want to get a calcium score so they can take appropriate steps to prevent heart attacks.
If it is anything but zero in younger individuals, you have early atherosclerotic disease, he says. Then you know you need to start managing cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diet, and weight, he explains. A recent long-term study of 1,289 adults showed that calcium scoring does correlate with the risk of a heart disease event within seven years.
The most accurate information provided by an EBCT calcium score is a negative result which means that if you take this test and it says you do not have any calcium in your coronary artery, your doctor can rule out atherosclerosis.
When is Electron Beam Computed Tomography Used?
EBCT is used to:
Create a calcium score, based on calcium deposits in the coronary arteries
Make predictions about coronary heart disease (CHD)
Take a look at bypass grafts
Take a look at lesions, or sores, in your heart muscle
Evaluate the muscle mass in your heart
Check on heart function
Benefits of Electron Beam Computed Tomography
It is less risky than more invasive tests for the presence of atherosclerosis.
It can show signs of heart disease before you have symptoms but in time to make changes that could prevent a heart attack.
An EBCT scan takes less than 20 minutes and you can return to normal activities immediately afterward.
Risks of Electron Beam Computed Tomography
As with other tests that involve radiation exposure, there is concern about the dose of radiation you receive. While it's safe for most adults, you still may want to talk to your doctor about safe radiation levels.
Although EBCT provides interesting information, there is no clear data showing whether changes made because of EBCT results prevent heart attacks. Whether you choose to have this test or not, you can make the changes in your life that will help prevent heart disease and heart attack.