A positron emission tomography (PET) scan of the heart is an imaging test that uses specialized dye to allow your doctor to view problems with your heart.

The dye contains radioactive tracers, which concentrate on areas of the heart that may be injured or diseased. Using a PET scanner, your doctor can spot these areas of concern.

A heart PET scan is typically an outpatient procedure, meaning you will not have to stay at the hospital overnight. This is typically a same-day procedure.

Your doctor may order a heart PET scan if you’re experiencing symptoms of heart trouble. Symptoms of heart trouble include:

  • irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • pain in your chest
  • tightness in your chest
  • trouble breathing
  • weakness
  • profuse sweating

Your doctor may also order a heart PET scan if other heart tests, such as an echocardiogram (ECG) or cardiac stress test, don’t provide your doctor with enough information. A heart PET scan can also be used to track the effectiveness of heart disease treatments.

While the scan does use radioactive tracers, your exposure is minimal. According to the American College of Radiology Imaging Network, the exposure level is too low to affect the normal processes of your body and is not regarded as a major risk.

Other risks of a heart PET scan include:

  • uncomfortable feelings if you’re claustrophobic
  • slight pain from the needle prick
  • muscle soreness from laying on the hard exam table

This test’s benefits far outweigh the minimal risks.

However, radiation may be harmful to a fetus or newborn. If you suspect you may be pregnant, or you’re nursing, your doctor may recommend another form of testing.

Your doctor will provide you with complete instructions about preparing for your heart PET scan. Tell your doctor about any medications you may be taking, whether they’re prescription, over-the-counter, or even nutritional supplements.

You may be instructed not to eat anything for up to eight hours before your procedure. You will, however, be able to drink water.

If you’re pregnant, believe you may be pregnant, or are nursing, tell your doctor. This test may be unsafe for your unborn or nursing child.

You should also tell your doctor about any medical conditions you have. For example, if you have diabetes, you may need special instructions for the test, as the fasting beforehand could affect your blood sugar levels.

Immediately before the test, you may be asked to change into a hospital gown and to remove all of your jewelry.

First, you will be seated in a chair. A technician will then insert an IV into your arm. Through this IV, a special dye with radioactive tracers will be injected into your veins. Your body needs time to absorb the tracers, so you will wait about an hour. During this time, a technician will attach electrodes for an electrocardiogram (ECG) to your chest so your heart rate can also be monitored.

Next, you will undergo the scan. This involves lying on a narrow table attached to the PET machine. The table will glide slowly and smoothly into the machine. You will have to lie as still as possible during the scans. At certain times, the technician will tell you to remain motionless. This allows the clearest pictures to be taken.

After the correct images have been stored in the computer, you will be able to slide out of the machine. The technician will then remove the electrodes, and the test is finished.

It’s a good idea to drink plenty of fluids after the test to help flush the tracers out of your system. Generally, all tracers are naturally flushed out of your body after two days.

A specialist trained in reading PET scans will interpret your images and share the information with your doctor. Your doctor will then go over the results with you at a follow-up appointment.

A heart PET scan provides your doctor with a detailed image of your heart. This allows them to see which areas of the heart are experiencing decreased blood flow and which areas are damaged or contain scar tissue.

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

Using the images, your doctor may diagnose coronary artery disease (CAD). This means that the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to your heart have become hardened, narrowed, or blocked. They might then order an angioplasty or the insertion of stents to expand the artery and relieve any narrowing.

An angioplasty involves placing a thin catheter (soft tube) with a balloon at its tip through a blood vessel until it reaches the narrowed, blocked artery. Once the catheter is in the desired location, your doctor will inflate the balloon. This balloon will press the plaque (the cause of the blockage) against the artery wall. Blood can then flow smoothly through the artery.

In more serious cases of CAD, coronary bypass surgery will be ordered. This surgery involves attaching a part of a vein from your leg or an artery from your chest or wrist to the coronary artery above and below the narrowed or blocked area. This newly attached vein or artery will then allow blood to “bypass” the damaged artery.

Heart failure

Heart failure is diagnosed when the heart is no longer able to provide enough blood to the rest of your body. A severe case of coronary artery disease is often the cause.

Heart failure can also be caused by:

In the case of heart failure, your doctor may prescribe medications or order surgery. They may order an angioplasty, coronary bypass surgery, or heart valve surgery. Your doctor may also want to insert a pacemaker or a defibrillator, which are devices that maintain a regular heartbeat.

Depending on your results, your doctor may talk to you about further testing and treatment.