Cath Lab 101: Behind the Laboratory Door

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Cath labs are an important part of treating heart conditions, but what actually happens behind the laboratory door? Read on to learn more about these special rooms.  

First off, what is a cath lab?

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 involve tiny, flexible tubes called catheters, which 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?

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 techs and other support staff to quickly evaluate cardiovascular conditions and treat blockages and other problems in the arteries. Common procedures include:

  • Cardiac coronary angiogram – a procedure that 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
  • Cardiac catherization – a procedure in which physicians examine blood flow and pressure filling the heart
  • Peripheral angiogram – a procedure that evaluates the flow and patency of arteries in the upper and lower extremities; similar to a coronary angiogram

What can a patient expect from a cath lab experience?

Cath lab procedures typically last one to two hours. Before the procedure, the nurse will place an IV line into a vein in the patient’s arm. This will allow delivery of sedative medications directly into the body. Once the area of the procedure is cleaned and shaved, 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 lays flat on the cath lab table, which moves around to allow the imaging cameras to rotate around the body. Monitors display real-time x-ray images and videos as well as vital signs throughout the procedure.

The only discomfort a patient should feel throughout the procedure is when the local anesthetic is used to numb the needle puncture site. While some patients sleep through their entire procedure, others are awake but drowsy.

When the procedure is complete, the doctor removes the catheters and determines if manual pressure is sufficient to prevent bleeding from the procedural site or if a special closure device should be used.

Here are five things to do before undergoing a cath lab procedure:

1. 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.

2. Follow any instructions about what to not eat or drink prior to the procedure.

3. Arrange for a friend or family member to provide transportation to and from the hospital on the date of the procedure.

4. Refrain from exertion and plan to stay home from work a few days following the procedure.

5. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions and share any concerns. The care team’s job is to make the experience as comfortable as possible.

    Ochsner is committed to providing treatment for complex conditions in your neighborhood. This year, Ochsner Medical Center – Kenner and Ochsner Medical Center – Jefferson Highway are expanding and renovating their cath labs with the latest innovative technology for patient care.

    When was the last time you had your heart health checked? Make an appointment online with an Ochsner cardiologist today! Ochsner.org/heartmonth

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