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Cardiac catheterisation

4-minute read

Cardiac catheterisation is a common procedure that lets cardiologists examine or treat the heart and arteries. It is sometimes called 'cardiac cath' or 'heart cath'.

Why is cardiac catheterisation performed?

Cardiac catheterisation involves inserting a thin, hollow tube, known as a catheter, into the heart from a blood vessel in the groin, arm or neck.

The procedure lets the cardiologist investigate how well the heart muscles and valves are working, and whether the blood vessels leading to and from the heart are narrowed or blocked.

Often, the catheter is used to introduce a dye to the arteries to prepare for an x-ray known as an angiogram. The x-ray can show where arteries are narrowed.

Cardiac catheterisation is usually done to help get a diagnosis when other tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) or chest x-ray, can't provide enough information. It can also help determine the best treatment for a heart condition.

Cardiac catheterisation is also used in certain medical procedures, such as implanting a stent into an artery to hold it open.

How to prepare for cardiac catheterisation

If you are having this procedure done, you should follow the guidelines your hospital clinic gives you on how to prepare for cardiac catheterisation.

You will be asked not to eat or drink some hours before admission to the clinic. If you usually take blood-thinning medication, you might be asked to stop taking it some days before the procedure.

Learn more about how to prepare for surgery here.

What happens during cardiac catheterisation

Cardiac catheterisation is a short procedure, usually taking between 30 and 60 minutes. It is generally done in a special catheterisation theatre, known usually as a cath lab, in the hospital.

Children are often given a general anaesthetic, but adults commonly have a local anaesthetic plus a sedative to help them relax.

The cardiologist will make a small puncture in a large blood vessel, usually in the groin. They will then insert a small tube, known as a sheath. They can then thread the catheter through the sheath and guide it to the heart, while following its progress on a screen.

They might inject some dye containing a tiny amount of radioactive material and monitor where it goes.

You could be asked to hold your breath at certain times during the procedure.

You might feel some pressure or heat, but you shouldn't feel any pain.

Illustration of a cardiac catheterisation showing the catheter insertion site, alternative site, catheter and narrowed artery on X-ray image
A catheter is inserted in an artery or vein, usually in your groin but alternatively in your arm or neck. The catheter is then threaded through your blood vessels to your heart.

What to expect after cardiac catheterisation

The site where you had the catheter inserted doesn't usually need stitches, but you might be bruised and sore for a few days.

If you've had a local anaesthetic and sedation, you'll need a few hours to recover. Children who have had a general anaesthetic might need a little longer. If entry was through the groin, you will need to lie down for the first few hours to prevent bleeding.

Make sure you are collected by someone who can drive you home.

Follow the guidelines provided by your clinic on how you should rest and when you can resume driving and physical activities. Your clinic will also advise you on symptoms that would indicate you should call your doctor.

What can go wrong?

Cardiac catheterisation is a common and usually very safe procedure. Rare complications include bleeding and bruising at the puncture site, a blood clot or an abnormal heart rhythm.

When you are back at home, if the puncture site bleeds uncontrollably or swells up very quickly, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

More information

Visit the Heart Foundation website to learn about other heart procedures.

Last reviewed: February 2018

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