May 05, 2023

Cardiac Catheterization: Purpose, Procedure and Recovery

Cardiac catheterization (also called cardiac cath or coronary angiogram) is an invasive imaging procedure that allows your healthcare provider to evaluate your heart function. Your provider puts a catheter (tiny tube) into a blood vessel in your arm or groin and then into your coronary arteries. Providers can use a heart catheterization to find problems and use other procedures to fix them, sometimes during the same appointment. For example, your provider could fix a heart flaw you were born with or replace your heart valve without making a large incision and doing traditional surgery.

Cardiac catheterization is used to:

A specially trained cardiologist and a team of cardiology fellows, nurses and technicians will perform your cardiac catheterization in the cardiac catheterization laboratory.

Your provider uses a needle to place special equipment, including a catheter (which is a small specially shaped tube), into a blood vessel (artery or vein). This can be done in your arm, in the neck, or in your leg. Your provider then injects contrast material through the catheter and creates X-ray movies (coronary angiogram or coronary angiography) as the contrast material moves through your heart's chambers, valves and major vessels. The digital photographs of the contrast material allow your provider to identify the site of the narrowing or blockage in the coronary artery, evaluate the size and shape of heart chambers and/or blood vessels and find abnormal leaks or holes.

In some cases, your healthcare provider may perform intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) and fractional flow reserve (FFR) along with cardiac catheterization to obtain more detailed images of your blood vessel walls. Only specialized hospitals and research centers have these imaging procedures.

You’ll need to make your provider aware of any medicines you’re taking and any allergies you have. Your provider will let you know how long before your procedure you should stop eating and drinking. Usually, you’ll need to stop eating and drinking six to eight hours before your heart catheterization.

Discuss all of your allergies with your provider, especially these:

Discuss your medications with your provider, who may want to stop or adjust the doses several days before or on the day of the procedure, especially these:

Ask your provider if you’ve completed or scheduled all of the required tests before your cardiac catheterization procedure. These may include some of the following:

Wear comfortable, easy-to-fold clothing on the day of your procedure and bring:

The cardiac catheterization room is cool and dimly lit. Your healthcare provider has to keep the air cool to prevent damage to the X-ray machinery they use during the procedure.

Once you and your healthcare team are ready, your cardiac catheterization begins.

What to watch for during your procedure

During your procedure, tell your provider if you feel:

With the ability to put other devices at the end of the catheter, your healthcare provider may combine an interventional procedure with your cardiac catheterization. An interventional procedure (also called angioplasty) is a nonsurgical treatment that opens narrowed coronary arteries to improve blood flow to the heart. Your provider can perform an interventional procedure during a diagnostic cardiac catheterization when they find a blockage, or they may schedule it after a catheterization confirms the presence of coronary artery disease (narrowing or blockage of your heart's arteries). An angioplasty opens your coronary artery, increasing blood flow to your heart.

Interventional procedures include:

Your healthcare provider will remove the catheters and sheath after your procedure.

A responsible driver must drive you home. Your provider won't discharge you unless you have someone available to drive you home.

If you have more than a two-hour drive home, you should stay overnight in a hotel for your comfort. Some hospitals have a medical concierge to help you make arrangements. Then have your family member drive you home the next morning after you have rested.

During your drive home, stop every hour and walk for five to 10 minutes. If you’re traveling home by plane, stand up to stretch your legs and walk in the aisle at least every hour.

Ask your healthcare provider when you can resume driving and exercising.

People rarely have complications from heart catheterization. One million cardiac catheterizations take place in the U.S. each year, but the chances of a major complication during a heart catheterization for diagnostic reasons is less than 1%. Your cardiologist will discuss the specific risks and potential benefits of the procedure with you. Some of the possible cardiac catheterization risks include:

There may be other possible risks. When you meet with your provider, ask questions to make sure you understand all of the potential risks and why they recommend the procedure.

After completing your cardiac catheterization, your healthcare provider will have a lot of information they can use to figure out your next step in treatment. Depending on the reason for your heart catheterization, your results can vary.

Your provider may:

Your healthcare provider may discuss your results with you right away. For something that takes more time, like a lab analysis of a tissue sample, it might take a few days to get results.

Contact your healthcare provider if you have:

If you feel you’re having a heart attack or stroke, get help right away.

The cardiac catheterization procedure itself generally takes 30 minutes, but the preparation and recovery time add several hours to your appointment time (five to nine hours or longer). You should plan on staying at the hospital all day for your procedure. If your providers decide to do an intervention, such as an angioplasty, that can take longer — sometimes a couple of hours.

Yes. You will get a mild sedative to relax you, but you’ll be awake and conscious during the whole procedure. Your provider will numb the catheter insertion site with a local anesthetic.

Cardiac catheterization is not considered a surgical procedure because your provider won't make a large incision. Also, the recovery time is much shorter than that of surgery. In some cases, your provider may recommend surgery afterward, depending on the results of your procedure.

You can usually drive 24 hours after leaving the hospital. Depending on where the catheter was put into your body, you’ll need to avoid strenuous activities (including sports and lifting) for two to five days. Your healthcare provider can tell you when you can return to work. You should not submerge the puncture site in water for a week. In other words, you shouldn't sit in a bathtub or pool or go swimming for one week. You may shower 24 hours after the procedure.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Cardiac catheterization provides valuable information your healthcare provider can use to decide what treatment would be best for you. If your provider found coronary artery disease, you have the power to improve your health by eating healthier foods and exercising. Keep all of your follow-up appointments with your provider and make sure you keep taking your medicines.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/29/2022.

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Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services.Policy

Intravascular ultrasound: Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT): Fractional flow reserve: A note from Cleveland Clinic