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Not all that long ago angioplasty was a relatively rare, high-risk intervention for opening blocked arteries. In fact, the first successful angioplasty was not performed until the late 1970's. Today, more than one million angioplasties are performed around the world each year. More than half of these occur in the United States. Angioplasty is a less invasive alternative to coronary bypass, which requires open-heart surgery.

As a result of the buildup of fat and cholesterol called plaque, arteries leading to the heart become narrowed or blocked. This condition is sometimes referred to as “hardening of the arteries.” When this occurs, the result is chest pain and a high risk of heart attack. Angioplasty is a medical procedure, which widens narrowed or blocked arteries so that the heart can get the blood and oxygen it needs to function properly. Angioplasty relieves the chest pain usually experienced and reduces the risk of heart attack in people with severely narrowed arteries in the heart. Angioplasty is sometimes referred to by its technical name: percutaneous transluminal angioplasty (PCTA).

In an angioplasty, the physician inserts a long narrow tube, called a catheter, through a small cut in the groin or arm. The catheter is threaded through blood vessels leading to the heart until it reaches the narrowed part of the artery. A tiny balloon attached to the tip of the catheter is positioned at the narrowed part of the artery and is then inflated with air. The balloon remains inflated from about 20 seconds to 3 minutes. The pressure of the balloon flattens the plaque lining the artery walls. Thus, the artery has a wider opening through which blood can flow.

Often, a small expandable wire tube called a stent, is pushed into place and left inside the artery to hold it open. The stent is mesh-like so cells lining the blood vessel grow through and around the stent, helping to keep it in place. While angioplasty was originally done using a balloon as described, today angioplasty often employs the use of tiny blades, a drill, or laser attached to the tip of the catheter in place of the balloon.

People who have had angioplasty can usually start walking within 12 to 24 hours and have an average hospital stay of only 1 to 2 days. Although angioplasty sounds far less traumatic than bypass surgery, the latter may be considered a better option for some people, such as those with diabetes. If you think that you or a loved one may be a candidate for angioplasty, be sure to meet with your doctor to discuss the benefits and risks associated with this and/or alternative treatments.

Advances in medical practice have resulted in improved health benefits today that could not have been imagined years ago. No doubt, progress will continue to be made offering even more hope for the future.


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