What is an angioplasty?

An angioplasty is a surgical procedure to open the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart muscle. These blood vessels are also known as coronary arteries. Doctors often perform this procedure immediately after a heart attack.

The procedure is also called a percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty or percutaneous coronary intervention. In many cases, doctors insert a coronary artery stent after an angioplasty. The stent helps keep the blood flowing and the artery from narrowing again.

Having an angioplasty within the first hours after a heart attack may reduce your risk of complications. Timing can be crucial. The faster you receive treatment for a heart attack, the lower the risk of heart failure, other complications, and death.

Angioplasty can also relieve the symptoms of heart disease if you haven’t had a heart attack.

Doctors usually perform this procedure while you are under local anesthesia. First, they make an incision in your arm or groin. Then they insert a catheter with a tiny inflatable balloon on the end into your artery. Using X-ray, video, and special dyes, your doctor guides the catheter up into the blocked coronary artery. Once it’s in position, the balloon is inflated to widen the artery. The fatty deposits, or plaque, get pushed against the wall of the artery. This clears the way for blood flow.

In some cases, the catheter is also equipped with a stainless steel mesh called a stent. The stent is used to hold the blood vessel open. It can remain in place after the balloon is deflated and removed. Once the balloon is out, your doctor can also remove the catheter. The procedure may take half an hour to several hours.

According to the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, angioplasty for heart attack treatment saves lives. It’s an efficient way to get blood flowing to the heart again quickly. The sooner your doctor restores your blood supply, the less damage there will be to your heart muscle. Angioplasty also relieves chest pain and may prevent shortness of breath and other symptoms associated with a heart attack.

Angioplasty may also cut the odds that you could need more invasive open-heart bypass surgery, which requires a significantly longer recovery time. The National Health Service notes that angioplasty may lower the risk of another heart attack. It may also increase your chances of survival more than medications that break up blood clots.

All medical procedures come with a certain amount of risk. Just like many other types of invasive procedures, you may have an allergic reaction to the anesthetic, the dye, or some of the materials used in the angioplasty. Some other risks associated with coronary angioplasty include:

  • bleeding, clotting, or bruising at the point of insertion
  • scar tissue or blood clots forming in the stent
  • an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia
  • damage to a blood vessel, heart valve, or artery
  • a heart attack
  • kidney damage, especially in people who have preexisting kidney problems
  • an infection

This procedure is also associated with the risk of stroke, but the risk is low.

The risks of an emergency angioplasty after a heart attack are greater than those of an angioplasty performed under different circumstances.

Angioplasty isn’t a cure for blocked arteries. In some cases, arteries can become narrow again if plaque builds up again in the artery or in a previously placed stent. This is called restenosis. The risk of restenosis is higher when your doctor doesn’t use a stent.

After a heart attack, your doctor will explain how to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. Always take your medications as prescribed by your doctor. If you’re a smoker, now is the time to quit. Eating a well-balanced diet and getting exercise every day may help lower your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Healthy lifestyle choices may also reduce your chances of having another heart attack.