Cardiac Catheterization

What is a Heart Catheterization?

A cardiac catheterization or “heart cath” is the most precise way to test how the heart is functioning.

This minimally invasive procedure uses thin, flexible tubes — called “catheters” — to look at and gather data about the heart from the inside.

To get inside the heart, a pediatric cardiologist and team of heart cath experts will:

  • Insert the thin, flexible tubes into the big blood vessels in the groin — called the femoral (FEM-or-ul) artery and vein — in the same way a nurse or doctor places an intravenous (IV) line.
  • Gently push the catheters through the blood vessels and into the heart using a type of x-ray called fluoroscopy (floor-OS-co-pee) to guide the placement.

In some cases, the team may also use blood vessels in the neck or arm to insert the catheter.

Once in place, the heart catheters will gather different types of data based on what the doctor needs to know.

The cardiologist can then plan the best care with the results of your child's heart cath and:

Why Might My Child Need a Heart Catheterization?

At the Heart Institute at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, we perform heart catheterizations only if the cardiologist cannot get the information he or she needs from other diagnostic tests. We never do them unless necessary.

If your child needs a heart cath, we will admit him or her to the hospital.

There are many types of catheters that doctors can use.

Each one serves a different purpose and allows the heart care team to:

  • Take blood samples from different parts of the heart and from the lungs to look at how much oxygen is in the blood.
  • Measure the blood pressure in the heart and lungs.
  • Look at the heart's electrical system.
  • Insert a special dye — called “contrast” — and use fluoroscopy to look at the heart and the arteries and veins in the heart and lungs. The doctor can see how well the heart is pumping and take pictures of it to look at later.

Your child may need a heart cath before some types of operations to provide the information the surgeon needs. For some children, doctors may repeat the test after surgery to assess the results of the operation.

Some children need an additional study of the heart’s electrical conduction system during the catheterization. This electrophysiology study (EP) uses an electrode catheter.

The catheter senses electrical activity in various areas of the heart and can deliver electrical impulses to pace the heart during the procedure.

Results from the EP study can help doctors diagnose arrhythmias and plan a method of treatment.

Heart catheterization treatments

More and more, doctors are using cardiac catheterizations as both a diagnostic tool and a method of treatment.

Some heart cath treatments are:

  • Ablation
  • Balloon atrial septostomy
  • Balloon angioplasty
  • Balloon valvuloplasty
  • Occluding devices
  • Raskind procedure
  • Stenting procedures

What are the Risks of Cardiac Catheterization?

At the Heart Institute, we do about 30 to 40 catheterizations each month.

For most children, it's safe. Very sick newborns and children carry extra risks.

The cardiologist will explain any special risks for your child. Parents must sign a consent form before their child's heart cath.

How Can I Schedule My Child for a Heart Catheterization?

After the cardiologist decides your child needs a heart cath, a scheduling secretary from the Heart Institute will contact you to arrange an admission date.

At times, we might need to change dates if:

  1. We need to schedule an emergency catheterization for another child.
  2. Your child has a fever, severe cold symptoms, or other major health problems that could affect the heart cath. Please call your cardiologist if your child becomes ill before his or her day of admission.

We will reschedule canceled catheterizations as soon as possible.

Learn More About Heart Catheterization

View the cardiac catheterization patient procedure sheet.