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CT Angiography (CTA)

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Your Radiologist Explains 
CT Angiography (CTA)

What is CT angiography?

Angiography is a minimally invasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions. Angiography uses one of three imaging technologies and, in most cases, a contrast material injection is needed to produce pictures of blood vessels in the body.

Angiography is performed using:

  • x-rays with catheters
  • computed tomography (CT)
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

CT angiography uses a CT scanner to produce detailed images of both blood vessels and tissues in various parts of the body. An iodine-rich contrast material (dye) is usually injected through a small catheter placed in a vein of the arm. A CT scan is then performed while the contrast flows through the blood vessels to the various organs of the body. After scanning, the images will be processed using a special computer and software and reviewed in different planes and projections.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

CT angiography is used to examine blood vessels and the organs supplied by them in various body parts.

Physicians use this test to diagnose and evaluate many diseases of blood vessels and related conditions such as:

  • injury
  • aneurysms
  • blockages (including those from blood clots or plaques)
  • disorganized blood vessels and blood supply to tumors
  • congenital (birth related) abnormalities of the heart, blood vessels or various parts of the body which might be supplied by abnormal blood vessels

Also, physicians use this exam to check blood vessels following surgery, such as:

  • identify abnormalities, such as aneurysms, in the aorta, both in the chest and abdomen, or in other arteries.
  • detect atherosclerotic (plaque) disease in the carotid artery of the neck, which may limit blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.
  • guide interventional radiologists and surgeons making repairs to diseased blood vessels, such as implanting stents or evaluating a stent after implantation.
  • identify dissection or splitting in the aorta in the chest or abdomen or its major branches.
  • show the extent and severity of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries and plan for a surgical operation, such as a coronary bypass and stenting.

How should I prepare?

You should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to your exam. You may be given a gown to wear during the procedure.

Metal objects, including jewelry, eyeglasses, dentures and hairpins, may affect the CT images and should be left at home or removed prior to your exam. You may also be asked to remove hearing aids and removable dental work. Women will be asked to remove bras containing metal underwire. You may be asked to remove any piercings, if possible.

You should inform the technologist if you have a pacemaker. Pacemakers do not hinder the use of CT as in MRI as long as the scanner will not be taking images repeatedly over the area of the pacemaker device in the upper chest. This is usually not an issue for cardiac CT exams.

You may be asked not to eat or drink anything for a few hours beforehand, especially if a contrast material will be used in your exam. You should inform your physician of all medications you are taking and if you have any allergies. If you have a known allergy to contrast material, or "dye," your doctor may prescribe medications (usually a steroid) to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. These medications generally need to be taken 12 hours prior to administration of contrast material. To avoid unnecessary delays, contact your doctor before the exact time of your exam.

Figure 1CT Scanner

What does the equipment look like?

The CT scanner is typically a large, box-like machine with a hole, or short tunnel, in the center. You will lie on a narrow examination table that slides into and out of this tunnel. Rotating around you, the x-ray tube and electronic x-ray detectors are located opposite each other in a ring, called a gantry. The computer workstation that processes the imaging information is located in a separate control room, where the technologist operates the scanner and monitors your examination in direct visual contact and usually with the ability to hear and talk to you with the use of a speaker and microphone.

What will I experience during and after the procedure?

CT exams are generally painless, fast and easy.

Though the scanning itself causes no pain, there may be some discomfort from having to remain still for several minutes and with placement of an IV. If you have a hard time staying still, are very nervous or anxious or have chronic pain, you may find a CT exam to be stressful. The technologist or nurse, under the direction of a physician, may offer you some medication to help you tolerate the CT scanning procedure.

If an intravenous contrast material is used, you will feel a pin prick when the needle is inserted into your vein. You will likely have a warm, flushed sensation during the injection of the contrast materials and a metallic taste in your mouth that lasts for at most a minute or two. You may experience a sensation like they have to urinate; however, this is actually a contrast effect and subsides quickly.

A Word About Minimizing Radiation Exposure

Special care is taken during x-ray examinations to use the lowest radiation dose possible while producing the best images for evaluation. National and international radiology protection organizations continually review and update the technique standards used by radiology professionals.

Modern x-ray systems have very controlled x-ray beams and dose control methods to minimize stray (scatter) radiation. This ensures that those parts of a patient's body not being imaged receive minimal radiation exposure.

Every effort will be made to reduce radiation while performing CT angiography, including tailoring the scan parameters specifically to your body type and weight. The scanning area will also be limited to the area of interest to avoid unnecessary radiation to other body parts.