The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scans: My stress test was normal. I don't need a heart scan!

Katy had undergone a stress test while being seen in an emergency room, where she'd gone one weekend because of a dull pain on the right side of her chest. After her stress test proved normal, she was diagnosed (I believe correctly) with esophageal reflux, or regurgitation of stomach acid up the esophagus. She was prescrbed an acid-suppressing medication with complete relief.

But Katy also had coronary plaque. Three years ago, her CT heart scan score was 157. She'd made efforts to correct the multiple causes, though she still struggled with keeping weight down to gain full control over her small LDL particle pattern.

I felt it was time for a reassessment: another heart scan. After three years, without any preventive efforts, Katy's score would be expected to have reached 345 ! (That's 30% per year plaque growth.) It's a good idea to get feedback on just how much slowing you've accomplished.

But Katy declared, "But I didn't think another heart scan was necessary. My stress test was normal!"

What Katy was struggling to understand was that even at the time of her first scan, a stress test would have been normal. Plaque can be present with a normal stress test.

Plaque can even show explosive growth all while stress tests remain normal. Just ask former President, Bill Clinton, how much he should have relied on stress tests. (Mr. Clinton underwent annual stress nuclear tests. All were normal and he had no symptoms--all the way up 'til the time he needed urgent bypass surgery!)

Of course, at some point even a crude stress test will reveal abnormal results. But that's years into your disease and a lot closer to needing procedures and experiencing heart attack.

So, yes, Katy would benefit from another heart scan despite her normal stress test.

The message: Don't rely on stress tests to gauge whether or not plaque has grown, stabilized, or reversed. Stress tests can be used to gauge the safety of exercise, blood pressure response, and the potential for abnormal heart rhythms. Stress tests can be used as a method to determine whether blood flow in your coronary arteries is normal through an area with plaque.

But a stress test cannot be used to gauge whether plaque has grown. It's as simple as that. Gauging plaque growth requires a heart scan.