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Heart CT Scans: The Jury Is In

Results of a head-to-head comparison study led by Johns Hopkins researchers show that noninvasive CT scans of the heart’s vessels are far better at spotting clogged arteries that can trigger a heart attack than the commonly prescribed exercise stress tests that most patients with chest pain undergo.

A report on the findings comparing CT angiograms and stress tests, published online Oct. 14, 2015, in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging, shows the scans correctly identified blockages in nine out of 10 people, while stress tests picked up blockages in six out of 10.

What renders the results of the new study particularly powerful, researchers say, is that each patient underwent all three tests, providing a direct, head-to-head comparison of their ability to accurately spot blockages.

“No test is 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, but our findings indicate CT angiograms get pretty close to that coveted threshold,” says lead investigator Armin Zadeh, associate professor of medicine. “We hope our findings will settle any residual uncertainty about the effectiveness of these two common, noninvasive heart tests.”

The researchers note that the gold standard for detecting blocked arteries remains invasive cardiac angiography, a test using dye and X-rays that requires a catheter to be threaded into the heart’s vessels. But cardiologists have long relied on so-called stress testing as a simpler, cheaper “gatekeeper” procedure to identify people more likely to benefit from the riskier, more invasive and more costly catheterizations.

CT angiograms have recently emerged as yet another noninvasive alternative. A handful of studies, Zadeh says, have suggested CT angiographies may be superior, but uncertainty has persisted due to the small number of people involved in these analyses, and stress tests have remained the more popular choice among clinicians.

Results of the new study, the research team says, should help settle lingering doubts among physicians and the nearly 15 million Americans who seek medical attention each year for symptoms that signal a clogged artery, including chest pain, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.