The balloon pump can help improve the heart’s ability to pump blood as it needs to. Through a surgical procedure, the device is inserted through your leg into the heart. This is a short-term solution that can be lifesaving for people who’ve had a heart attack or other cardiac issues.

A balloon pump for the heart can help improve circulation by boosting the heart’s ability to pump more blood out to the body. It’s a beneficial device for people experiencing a range of health concerns, including heart attack and heart failure.

There can be risk associated with having a balloon pump procedure in the hospital. But this short-term solution may be a lifesaving step toward improved cardiovascular health.

A balloon pump for the heart is also called an intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP). This is because it’s placed in the aorta, the large artery that leaves the heart and carries blood to most of the body. Since the balloon pump debuted in the late 1960s, it’s been the most commonly used device to temporarily support cardiac function.

The device is a balloon that’s loaded into a catheter that sits in the aorta. It’s attached to a machine that inflates and deflates the balloon in timing with your heartbeat. The pump is used when the heart is unable to pump blood on its own to meet the body’s needs, a condition known as cardiogenic shock.

Cardiogenic shock is why you’d need to use a balloon pump, and any of the following conditions can cause it:

This 2021 research article suggests that while IABP therapy may be less effective than some newer mechanical devices in improving circulation among heart attack survivors, the balloon pumps are still options to consider for some people. IABP therapy is beneficial for those diagnosed with acute decompensated heart failure, a worsening of heart failure that requires prompt treatment.

IABP can be especially helpful for individuals needing temporary help, but additional circulation support may be needed. Cardiogenic shock can sometimes set in briefly following the placement of a cardiac stent in a coronary artery.

Why a balloon pump instead of a heart stent?

A heart stent is a small, mesh tube that’s placed in a coronary artery that’s become blocked, usually by excess plaque in the artery walls. When a stent in placed at the site of blockage, it pushes plaque against the inner artery wall and allows for better blood flow.

The stent is usually meant to be a permanent treatment, which means it’s designed to remain in an artery indefinitely. That’s different than a balloon pump, which is only temporary therapy meant to help the heart recover from a heart attack, heart surgery, or other challenge.

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The duration of IABP therapy depends on the nature and severity of your condition.

The procedure to insert the balloon into the aorta through the upper thigh takes around 30 minutes.

Once the balloon is in place and begins its inflation-deflation pattern, your heart function will be monitored closely while you’re in the hospital.

You may need IABP therapy for a day or two, or up to several days.

When heart function starts to improve, your doctor will attempt to wean the balloon pump by changing the settings for the balloon to inflate with every other heartbeat or every third heartbeat, before eventually removing the balloon pump.

For individuals waiting for a heart transplant, IABP therapy may be required for a longer period of time while awaiting a heart transplant because the heart cannot function without help.

Before the procedure

Prior to the heart balloon pump procedure, you’ll have basic blood work done to check for anemia and infection.

You may also have an electrocardiogram to assess your heart rhythm and an echocardiogram to check on your heart’s pumping ability.

The procedure

  • IABP therapy starts with an incision in the leg and the insertion of the catheter into a blood vessel. Using special X-ray equipment, the doctor can see the blood vessel housing the catheter as the device is moved upward to the heart.
  • During the procedure you will be under local anesthesia and will be given medications to help you relax.
  • If the procedure is done during heart surgery, you will be under general anesthesia.

How does the heart balloon pump work?

Once the catheter is in the aorta, the balloon will inflate as the heart relaxes in between beats and deflate when the heart contracts and pumps blood out to the body. This pattern is set to your regular heartbeat and a computer controlling the inflation and deflation keeps it steady.

When the heart is relaxed between beats, the balloon inflates and improves blood flow through the coronary arteries, which supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood. A weakened heart may not get enough blood to keep the heart muscle pumping effectively without support.

When the heart contracts, the balloon deflates. This allows the heart to pump as much blood as it can out through the aorta but with less energy and effort. A weakened heart compensates for its reduced pumping ability by trying to work harder. This often further weakens the heart muscle.

Removing the balloon pump

Once your healthcare team determines that your balloon pump can be removed, you will again receive local anesthesia.

After the catheter’s removed, the doctor will close the incision in your leg. You’ll be given care instructions for the wound and for the next step in your heart health journey. For example, if you’ve had a heart attack, you may be advised to participate in cardiac rehabilitation.

A 2019 study says one of the main advantages of IABP therapy is that it is minimally invasive, reducing the risks associated with open surgery procedures and allowing for a faster recovery.

But like any medical procedure, side effects are possible, including:

  • balloon rupture
  • excessive bleeding
  • infection
  • injury to the artery used for catheter insertion
  • limb ischemia (drastically reduced blood flow to the arms and/or legs)
  • stroke
  • blood cot

A balloon pump for a weakened heart helps support heart function by making sure the coronary arteries receive a steady flow of blood to power the heart’s pumping ability and to help ensure blood is pumped with less energy.

IABP therapy is a well-established treatment for short-term cardiac support. And though it does carry some risks, IABP can be a lifesaving feature for people recovering from a heart attack, heart failure, heart surgery, or other cardiac problems.