An angiogram is an X-ray of the blood vessels. They can provide images of the blood vessels in many different organs. As a result, they often help doctors diagnose conditions affecting the heart, brain, arms, or legs.

Angiograms can help doctors detect blood vessel abnormalities, including weakened blood vessels, plaque deposits, and blood clots.

This articles discusses why doctors use angiograms, how they perform them, and the risks and side effects associated with the procedure.

It also provides tips for people recovering from an angiogram.

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Blood vessel abnormalities may show on an angiogram.

The term "angiogram" refers to a number of diagnostic tests that doctors can use to identify blocked or narrow blood vessels.

Angiograms also help doctors diagnose a range of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary atherosclerosis, vascular stenosis, and aneurysms.

To perform a traditional angiogram, a doctor inserts a long, narrow tube called a catheter into an artery located in the arm, upper thigh, or groin.

They will inject contrast dye into the catheter and take X-rays of the blood vessels. The contrast dye makes blood vessels more visible on X-ray images.

Not all angiograms involve X-ray machines, however. Doctors can also perform angiograms using CT scans and MRI scans.

A doctor may order an angiogram if someone:

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it accounts for around 1 in every 4 deaths.

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can lower a person's risk of dying from heart disease. Doctors use various tests and procedures, such as angiograms, to identify and treat different types of heart disease.

A doctor can use an angiogram to examine blood vessels across the body, including in the:

  • back
  • neck
  • heart
  • chest
  • abdomen
  • pelvis
  • arms and hands
  • legs and feet

During an angiogram, a doctor will look for signs of cardiovascular disease and problems with blood vessels.

They use angiogram results to diagnose the following conditions:

  • aneurysms, or bulges that develop in weakened artery walls
  • atherosclerosis, which occurs when plaques and fatty material collect on the inner walls of the arteries
  • pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots
  • vascular stenosis, which causes abnormal narrowing of the blood vessels that lead to the brain, heart, or legs
  • congenital abnormalities in the blood vessels or heart

A doctor may also order an angiogram:

  • to evaluate the health of a person's blood vessels before surgery
  • to identify blood vessels feeding a tumor
  • to plan treatments, such as a coronary bypass, stenting, or chemoembolization
  • to evaluate a stent after placement

The following sections discuss what to expect before, during, and after an angiogram.

Preparation

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A doctor can advise on how to prepare for an angiogram.

A doctor will explain how to prepare for an angiogram during the appointment before the procedure. In most cases, people will need to avoid eating and drinking anything the night before the procedure.

People should also arrange for someone to drive them home after they leave the hospital.

Remember to bring the following items:

  • a list of current medications and supplements
  • a list of all known allergies
  • a current driver's license or another form of identification
  • current medical insurance information

After the person signs in, a nurse will lead them to a private room where they can change into a hospital gown.

The nurse will then insert an intravenous line into a small vein on the person's hand or wrist. They will also check the person's vitals, including their weight, body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure.

During the procedure

Before the test, a doctor will administer a mild sedative, which will help the person relax. It will not induce unconsciousness.

The doctor will then disinfect and numb the area of the body where they will insert the catheter. They will make a small cut in the skin and insert the catheter into an artery.

Once the catheter is inside the artery, the doctor will carefully guide it to the blood vessel they want to examine. They will inject the contrast dye through the catheter and take X-ray images of the blood vessel. The person may feel a slight burning sensation when the doctor injects the contrast dye.

After the procedure

After taking the X-ray images, the doctor will remove the catheter and apply steady pressure on the area for about 15 minutes. This ensures that there is no internal bleeding.

A nurse will then take the person back to their hospital room or to the cardiac unit. The doctor may return later to discuss the person's results.

Doctors use angiograms to evaluate the flow of blood to the heart, brain, and other organs. An abnormal angiogram result may indicate that a person has one or more blocked arteries.

In these cases, the doctor may choose to treat the blockage during the angiogram.

Most people have a very low risk of developing major complications after an angiogram. However, this invasive procedure does have some risks, which are mainly associated with the process of inserting a catheter into the heart.

However, the authors of a 2012 review article state that less than 2% of the population develop major complications from having a catheter inserted into the heart.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, older adults and people with certain medical conditions, such as chronic kidney disease or diabetes, have a higher risk of experiencing complications after an angiogram.

Risks associated with cardiac catheterization and angiograms include:

  • allergic reactions to the local anesthetic, contrast dye, or sedative
  • bleeding, bruising, or soreness at the insertion site
  • blood clots
  • injury to an artery or vein
  • damage to the walls of the heart
  • acute kidney failure
  • infection
  • irregular heartbeat
  • heart attack or stroke, though this is highly unlikely

People who have had an allergic reaction to contrast dye in the past may need to take medication to reduce the risk of having another allergic reaction. People should take this medication at least 24 hours before the angiogram procedure.

To completely eliminate the risk of an allergic reaction, a doctor can choose to use a different method than the traditional angiogram.

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Drinking plenty of water may help a person recover from an angiogram.

After an angiogram, a person should try to rest as much as possible at home. Tips to keep in mind during recovery include:

  • avoiding driving or operating machinery until the sedative has completely worn off
  • drinking plenty of water
  • avoiding strenuous physical activity for the few first days
  • applying a fresh bandage as often as the doctor recommends
  • keeping the wound clean and dry
  • avoiding taking baths, using hot tubs, or swimming in pools while the wound heals

People should contact their doctor if they suspect they have an infection. Symptoms of an infection include:

  • redness, swelling, or worsening pain near the wound
  • drainage or discharge from the wound
  • fever

During an angioplasty, a doctor inserts an inflatable balloon or mesh splint into a blocked or narrow artery. When it is in the right place, the doctor will inflate or expand the balloon or splint, improving the blood flow in that artery.

Doctors often perform angioplasties during angiograms.

Doctors use angiograms to examine blood vessels. Angiogram results can help doctors diagnose and treat blood vessel problems and cardiovascular diseases.

During the procedure, a doctor gently guides a catheter through an artery until it reaches the area of the body under investigation. Once the catheter reaches the correct location in the body, the doctor will inject contrast dye and take a series of images of the blood vessels.

Although rare, this procedure does carry some risk of side effects, including:

  • bleeding
  • bruising
  • infection
  • blood clots
  • injury to an artery or vein
  • damage to the walls of the heart
  • irregular heartbeat

People should contact their doctor if they experience any of these symptoms after having an angiogram.