What are the risks of cardiac catheterization?

The following are potential risks and complications of cardiac catheterization:

  • Leg numbness or weakness for a few hours after (rare)
  • Bleeding or infection where the catheter was inserted (rare)
  • Bad reaction to the contrast dye (very rare)
  • Reduced kidney function (kidney failure in rare cases)—tell your doctor or the imaging technician if you have kidney disease or diabetes
  • Exposure to x-ray energy, which can slightly increase your lifetime cancer risk
  • Damage to the artery or heart muscle (extremely rare)
  • Heart attack or stroke (extremely rare, and not typically caused by the procedure itself)
  • Unforeseen complications
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

A cardiac catheterization is a procedure done in the hospital that allows a cardiologist to check out the blood flow within your heart from inside the body. It involves inserting a catheter into the heart through an artery in the leg, arm or neck.

Although the procedure is invasive, risks are rare. They include damage to blood vessels, bleeding, infection, pain at the site where the catheter is inserted and an allergic reaction to the dye that is sometimes used in the catheter. Still, the possibility of detecting, evaluating or even treating a heart defect through catheterization far outweighs the risks.

The risks of cardiac catheterization procedures include having a heart attack, a stroke, a severe arrhythmia, blood clots that may travel to the leg or brain, infection, bleeding—especially where the catheter goes into the body—or allergies such as an allergic response to the contrast dye. This is usually rare, occurring in 1 out of 500 patients. The risk goes up the sicker the patient is.

Cardiac catheterization is a common medical procedure that rarely causes serious problems. However, complications can include:

  • Bleeding, infection and pain where the catheter was inserted
  • Damage to blood vessels. Rarely, the catheter may scrape or poke a hole in a blood vessel as it's threaded to the heart
  • An allergic reaction to the dye used

Other, less common complications of the procedure include:

  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)—these often go away on their own, but may need treatment if they persist
  • Damage to the kidneys caused by the dye used
  • Blood clots that can trigger stroke, heart attack or other serious problems
  • Low blood pressure
  • A buildup of blood or fluid in the sac that surrounds the heart—this fluid can prevent the heart from beating properly

As with any procedure involving the heart, complications can sometimes be fatal. However, this is rare with cardiac catheterization.

The risk of complications with cardiac catheterization is higher if you have diabetes or kidney disease or if you're aged 75 or older. The risk of complications also is greater in women and in people having cardiac catheterization on an emergency basis.

This answer from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. William D. Knopf.

Possible risks associated with cardiac catheterization, a procedure performed to further diagnose coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, congestive heart failure and/or certain congenital (present at birth) heart conditions, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • bleeding at the catheter insertion site (usually the groin, but the arm may be used in certain circumstances)
  • blood clot or damage to the blood vessel at the insertion site
  • infection at the catheter insertion site
  • problems with heart rhythm (usually temporary)
  • ischemia (decreased blood flow to the heart tissue), chest pain or angina
  • stroke (rare)

You may want to ask your physician about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It is a good idea to keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other types of x-rays, so that you can inform your physician. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of x-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time.

If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your physician due to risk of injury to the fetus from a cardiac catheterization. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If you are lactating or breastfeeding you should notify your physician.

There is a risk for allergic reaction to the cath dye. Patients who are allergic to or sensitive to medications, contrast dye, iodine or latex should notify their physician. Also, patients with kidney failure or other kidney problems should notify their physician.

For some patients, having to lie still on the cardiac catheterization table for the length of the procedure may cause some discomfort or pain.

There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the procedure.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.