During a heart angioplasty, a doctor uses a catheter with a balloon to open a narrowed blood vessel in the heart. Typically, they insert a stent during the procedure. A stent is a mesh tube designed to keep the blood vessel open.

A heart angioplasty is a procedure to open narrowed blood vessels of the heart to improve blood flow. Another term for this procedure is percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI).

There are some risks associated with the procedure, such as injury to blood vessels. However, a doctor or cardiologist can talk through these with a person and — where they are able to — mitigate some of those risks.

This article looks at what to expect during and after the procedure and recovery.

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Angioplasty involves using a thin, flexible tube — called a catheter — with a balloon attached at one end to open a narrowed blood vessel.

The balloon inflates to compress the plaque and widen the blood vessel. A doctor may then place a stent, or a mesh tube, to keep the blood vessel open. People may undergo angioplasty with or without stent placement.

A doctor will use imaging scans, such as X-rays, to guide the procedure. The procedure is minimally invasive, as it only requires a small incision to insert the catheter.

People may have heart angioplasty and stenting to treat coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is characterized by the narrowing of the arteries, which limits blood flow and oxygen that supply the heart.

Plaque buildup on the artery walls is usually responsible for narrowing the arteries. Plaques comprise fatty substances, cholesterol, waste products, fibrin (a clotting material), and calcium. The medical term for plaque buildup is atherosclerosis.

Sometimes, heart angioplasty with stenting may be an emergency procedure in response to a heart attack.

Preparation for an angioplasty and stent procedure may include the following:

  • telling a doctor about any medical conditions, recent illnesses, and current medications — including supplements and herbal remedies
  • telling a doctor about any allergies
  • taking any regular medication as usual, particularly if taking blood pressure medications — unless a doctor instructs otherwise
  • stopping certain medications before the procedure, such as blood thinners or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • telling a doctor if a person thinks they may be pregnant, as the healthcare team may need to take precautions using X-rays
  • following any instructions for preparation, such as not eating or drinking for a set time before the procedure
  • packing a bag and making any necessary arrangements in the event a person needs to stay in the hospital for recovery

Details are below:

Before the procedure

Before the procedure, a doctor may give people an anesthetic or sedative.

People may require clipping or shaving of any hair and cleaning the area of access in the groin or wrist.

During the procedure

  • A healthcare professional will insert an IV line into the body, which helps provide medications during the procedure.
  • A healthcare professional attaches electrodes to the body to monitor the heart and an oximeter on the finger or ear to track oxygen saturation.
  • After using a needle to gain access to a blood vessel in the groin or wrist, the cardiologist will use fluoroscopy (X-rays) to guide the catheter through blood vessels to the area of the blockage.
  • Then, the doctor injects contrast dye into the blood vessel, allowing them to see the blockage on an X-ray. Once the catheter is in place, the cardiologist will inflate the balloon. For some people, they may also place the stent at this time.
  • The doctor will then remove the balloon and catheter.
  • Finally, the doctor will apply pressure to the insertion site to stop any bleeding and may apply a tight bandage.

Throughout the whole procedure, people may experience some discomfort or sensations due to the catheter insertion and contrast dye, but these are usually brief.

Different stent types are available for insertion, such as a drug-coated stent, which releases medication to help prevent the blood vessel from narrowing.

After the procedure, healthcare professionals will monitor people in a recovery room in the hospital. In most cases, people remain in bed for 2–6 hours. An overnight hospital stay is usually required, but some people may be able to go home on the same day.

If doctors use the groin to access the blood vessel, a person will need to lie flat with the leg straight for several hours.

If doctors insert the catheter into the arm or wrist, keeping the arm straight and elevated may be beneficial. If they use the wrist, they will apply a tight band and monitor the area for bleeding for several hours.

Once people are able to go home, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and avoid strenuous exercise or heavy lifting for at least 24 hours. People will need to take any medications their doctor prescribes and attend any follow-up appointments to monitor progress.

How long does it take to recover?

People may be able to return to work and regular physical activity within a few days or weeks, but they will need to follow their doctor’s instructions.

A person may also require cardiac rehabilitation, where they receive counseling and a supervised exercise program.

Doctors may recommend certain lifestyle modifications following a heart angioplasty and stent placement. Healthy diet and lifestyle changes may help reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and the need for future procedures. These can include:

  • reaching and maintaining a moderate weight
  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a heart-healthy diet
  • managing stress
  • quitting or avoiding smoking

Learn more about the benefits of eating healthy.

Serious complications rarely occur, but some risks of heart angioplasty and stent placement may include:

People can discuss potential side effects with a doctor. If people have any kidney problems, they must discuss this with their doctor. Contrast dye may affect kidney function. Therefore a doctor will assess the risk of using them before the procedure.

A heart angioplasty is a procedure to open narrowed arteries supplying blood to the heart. People may also have stent placement to keep the blood vessels open.

The procedure may involve threading a catheter, with a balloon on its end, through the blood vessels so that it reaches the affected artery. Once the catheter is in place, doctors inflate the balloon, causing the artery to widen. At the same time, a doctor may place a stent, or mesh tube, to keep the artery open.

After the procedure, people may need to spend the night in the hospital to recover. Taking necessary medications, such as blood thinners, and following a healthy lifestyle post-procedure may support recovery and help prevent complications.