What is a Cath Lab?
The name cath lab sounds a little like something out of a science fiction movie. And in fact, the way that medical professionals use these spaces is a bit futuristic. Cath labs are used to treat patients with heart conditions minimally, without resorting to major surgeries or other invasive procedures. Your healthcare provider may recommend a test or treatment in the cath lab if they need to better understand the state of your heart.
What is a cath lab?
Cath labs are an important part of treating heart conditions. A catheterization laboratory, or cath lab, is a procedural hospital room where minimally invasive tests and procedures are performed to diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease. The procedures performed in a cath lab involve tiny, flexible tubes called catheters which is where the name is derived from. These catheters can be used as an alternative to surgery to access the heart and blood vessels.
What are some reasons a patient would be sent to a cath lab by their care team?
Cath labs are an important part of treating heart conditions. A doctor may send a patient to a cath lab to diagnose and treat coronary artery disease, heart attacks, chest pain, congestive heart failure, peripheral (limb) vascular disease, pulmonary hypertension and even pulmonary embolisms, also known as blood clots.
Inside the cath lab, interventional cardiologists work with a team of nurses, procedural X-ray technicians and other support staff to quickly evaluate cardiovascular conditions and treat blockages and other problems in the arteries.
Common cath lab procedures include:
- Cardiac coronary angiogram: This procedure evaluates the blood vessels supplying the heart using catheters and X-ray dye.
- Coronary stent placement: A procedure in which small metal scaffolds are placed within a blocked coronary artery to keep an artery open.
- Right heart catheterization: A procedure in which physicians examine blood flow and pressure filling in the right side of your heart
- Peripheral angiogram: A procedure that evaluates the flow of blood through arteries in the upper and lower extremities, similar to a coronary angiogram.
- Valve replacement: This minimally invasive procedure is done to implant an artificial valve in your heart to replace a narrowed heart valve.
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What can a patient expect from a cath lab experience?
Cath lab procedures typically last one to three hours. The complex procedures might take more time. The preparation and recovery time can add several hours to your appointment time, between four to ten hours or sometimes longer.
Before the procedure, the nurse will place an IV line into a vein in the patient’s arm. The IV will deliver sedative medications directly into the body. A nurse will also clean and shave the physical area where the procedure will take place. After this, the patient will be brought to the cath lab and the procedure will start.
Cath labs are filled with state-of-the-art X-ray imaging cameras. The patient will lay flat on the cath lab table, which can move around to allow the imaging cameras to rotate around the body. Monitors display real-time X-ray images and videos as well as indicate vital signs throughout the procedure.
The patient might feel mild discomfort when the local anesthetic is used to numb the needle puncture site. Pain and sedative medications are given to make the procedure comfortable and pain-free. While some patients sleep through their entire procedure, others are awake but drowsy.
When a procedure is completed, the doctor will remove the catheters and determine if manual pressure is sufficient to prevent bleeding from the procedural site or if a special closure device should be used.
Three things to do before undergoing a cath lab procedure:
- Provide a list of allergies and current medications to the care team. Some medications may need to be stopped one week prior to the procedure.
- Follow any instructions about what to not eat or drink prior to the procedure.
- Arrange for a friend or family member to provide transportation to and from the hospital on the day of the procedure.
Following your cath lab procedure, you can expect the following:
- The length of your stay in the hospital will depend on your condition. Your doctor will tell you if you are able to return home or will need to stay overnight. In either case, you will be monitored for several hours in a recovery room after the procedure.
- If the groin is used, you'll need to lie flat for several hours after the procedure to avoid serious bleeding and to allow the artery to heal.
- You'll be able to eat and drink after the procedure.
- Refrain from exertion and plan to stay home from work for a few days following the procedure.
- Ask any questions and share any concerns. The care team’s job is to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
Ideally, a medical visit to the cardiac catheterization lab, or cath lab, will help to prevent more intrusive or expensive treatments down the line. The minimally invasive technique that is used specifically in the cath lab can give doctors a lot of new information on how to treat existing heart troubles and prevent new ones from forming.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Feb. 12, 2019.