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Angiography

Angiography is a type of X-ray used to examine the blood vessels. Find out why it's used, what it involves and what the possible risks are.

Angiography is a type of X-ray used to check the blood vessels.

Blood vessels don't show up clearly on a normal X-ray, so a special dye needs to be injected into your blood first.

This highlights your blood vessels, allowing your doctor to spot any problems.

The X-ray images created during angiography are called "angiograms".

This page covers:

Why angiograms are used

What happens

Risks and complications

Types of angiogram

Why angiograms are used

Angiography is used to check the health of your blood vessels and how blood flows through them.

It can be used to help diagnose or investigate a number of problems affecting the blood vessels, including:

Angiography may also be used to help plan treatment for some of these conditions.

What happens during angiography

Angiography is carried out in a hospital X-ray or radiology department.

For the test:

  • you'll usually be awake, but may be given a medication called a sedative to help you relax
  • you lie down on a table and a small cut is made over one of your arteries, usually near your groin or wrist – local anaesthetic is used to numb the area where the cut is made
  • a very thin flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into the artery
  • the catheter is carefully guided to the area that's being examined (such as the heart)
  • a dye (contrast medium) is injected into the catheter
  • a series of X-rays are taken as the dye flows through your blood vessels

The test can take between 30 minutes and two hours. You'll usually be able to go home a few hours afterwards.

Read more about what happens before, during and after angiography.

Risks of an angiogram

Angiography is generally a safe and painless procedure.

But for a few days or weeks afterwards it's common to have:

  • bruising
  • soreness
  • a very small lump or collection of blood near where the cut was made

There is also a very small risk of more serious complications occurring, such as an allergic reaction to the dye, a stroke or a heart attack.

Read more about the risks of angiography.

Types of angiogram

There are several different types of angiogram, depending on which part of the body is being looked at.

Common types include:

  • coronary angiography – to check the heart and nearby blood vessels
  • cerebral angiography – to check the blood vessels in and around the brain
  • pulmonary angiography – to check the blood vessels supplying the lungs
  • renal angiography – to check the blood vessels supplying the kidneys

Occasionally angiography may be carried out using scans rather than X-rays. These are called computerised tomography (CT) angiography or magnetic resonance (MR) angiography.

There is also a type of angiography used to check the eyes called a fluorescein angiogram. This is different to the angiograms mentioned above and isn't covered in this topic.

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Angiography

Find out how to get ready for angiogram, what happens during the procedure, and what happens afterwards.

Angiography is carried out in a hospital X-ray or radiology department. It normally takes between 30 minutes and two hours, and you can usually go home the same day.

This page covers:

Preparation

The procedure

Afterwards

Preparing for an angiogram

Before having an angiogram, you may be asked to attend a hospital appointment to check that you can have the test.

This may involve:

  • being asked about your medical history, including if you have any allergies
  • being asked about any medication you're taking – you'll be told if you need to stop taking it before the test
  • having a number of tests to check your general health, including a physical examination and blood tests
  • a discussion about the angiogram, including what it involves, what the risks are, what you need to do beforehand and whether you'd like to have sedative medication on the day to help you relax

If you choose to have a sedative, you'll be asked not to eat for a few hours before the test.

You'll also need to arrange for someone to pick you up from the hospital, as you won't be able to drive yourself home. 

The angiography procedure

You'll usually be awake for an angiogram, although general anaesthetic (where you're asleep) may be used for young children.

For the test:

  • you'll be asked to change into a hospital gown and lie down on a special table
  • a small cut is made in the skin over one of your arteries, usually near your groin or wrist – local anaesthetic is used to numb the area so it doesn't hurt
  • a long, thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into the artery and is carefully guided to the area being examined – you may feel some pushing and pulling when this is done, but it shouldn't be painful
  • a special dye (contrast agent) is injected through the catheter – you may feel warm, flushed and as though you need to pee for a few seconds after this is done
  • a series of X-rays are taken as the dye flows through your blood vessels

Sometimes treatment may be carried at the same time, such as inserting a balloon or a small tube to open up a narrowed artery. This is known as angioplasty.

Once the procedure is finished, the catheter is removed and pressure is placed on the cut to stop any bleeding. Stitches aren't needed.

After an angiogram

After the test, you'll be taken to a recovery ward where you'll be asked to lie still for a few hours to prevent bleeding from the cut.

You'll usually be able to go home the same day, although sometimes you may need to stay in hospital overnight.

It may be possible to tell you the results of the test before you go home, but often the X-rays need to be studied in detail and the results are not available for a few weeks.

While recovering at home:

  • rest for the remainder of the day – it's a good idea for someone to stay with you for at least 24 hours in case you have any problems
  • eat and drink as soon as you feel ready to – the contrast dye leaves your body in your urine, so drinking plenty of water can help flush it out faster
  • you can usually return to most normal activities the next day, although you may need to avoid heavy lifting and strenuous exercise for a few days 

You will probably have some bruising and soreness for at least a few days.

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Angiography

Find out about the side effects and complications associated with angiography, and when to get medical help.

Angiography is generally a very safe procedure, although minor side effects are common and there's a small risk of serious complications.

The test will only be done if the benefits of having the procedure are felt to outweigh any potential risk.

Speak to your doctor about the risks involved with having an angiogram.

Side effects

After an angiogram, many people have:

  • bruising
  • soreness
  • a very small bump or collection of blood near where the cut was made

These problems should improve in a few days or weeks and aren't usually anything to worry about.

You can take painkillers such as paracetamol for any discomfort if you need to.

Complications

Most people who have an angiogram won't experience any complications, but there is a small chance of minor or serious complications occurring.

Possible minor complications include:

  • an infection where the cut was made, causing the area to become red, hot, swollen and painful – this may need to be treated with antibiotics
  • a mild reaction to the dye, such as an itchy rash  this can usually be controlled with medication

Possible serious complications include:

  • kidney damage due to the dye – this is usually temporary
  • a heart attack or stroke
  • damage to a blood vessel, causing internal bleeding – further surgery may be needed to repair the damage 
  • a serious allergic reaction to the dye (anaphylaxis), causing dizziness, breathing difficulties or loss of consciousness

These serious complications are very rare. For example, an estimated 1 in 1,000 people will have a stroke, and approximately 1 in 50,000 to 150,000 people will develop anaphylaxis.

When to get medical help

Contact your GP or the hospital for advice if:

  • the cut starts bleeding and doesn't stop after applying pressure for a few minutes
  • you have severe pain not relieved by painkillers
  • your skin becomes red, swollen and hot
  • the leg or arm where the cut was made looks or feels different to the other leg or arm – for example, it looks pale or feels cold
  • a firm, tender lump develops near where the cut was made

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