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Learning About Coronary Angioplasty

Stent placed in a coronary artery

What is a coronary angioplasty?

Coronary angioplasty is a procedure that uses a thin tube called a catheter to open a blocked or narrowed coronary artery. Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that bring oxygen to the heart muscle. Angioplasty also may be called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI).

Angioplasty can widen an artery that has been narrowed by fatty buildup (plaque) or blocked by a blood clot. The procedure helps blood flow more normally to the heart muscle.

How is the procedure done?

Coronary angioplasty is done in a cardiac catheterization laboratory ("cath lab"). It is done by a heart specialist called a cardiologist. The procedure may take 1½ to 3 hours.

You lie on a table under a large X-ray machine. You will get medicine through an IV in one of your veins. It helps you relax and not feel pain. You will be awake during the procedure. But you may not be able to remember much about it.

The doctor will inject some medicine into your arm or groin to numb the skin. You will feel a small needle poke you. It's like having a blood test. You may feel some pressure when the doctor puts in the catheter. But you will not feel pain.

The doctor will look at X-ray pictures on a monitor (like a TV screen) to move the catheter to your heart. The doctor then puts a dye into the catheter. This makes your heart's arteries show up on a screen. The doctor can then see any arteries that are blocked or narrowed. You may feel warm or flushed for a short time when the doctor injects dye into your artery.

If you have a blocked or narrow artery, the doctor uses a catheter with a tiny balloon at the tip. The doctor puts it into the blocked or narrow area and inflates it. The balloon presses the fatty buildup against the walls of the artery. This buildup is called plaque. This creates more room for blood to flow. In most cases, the doctor then puts a stent in the artery. A stent is a small, expandable tube. It presses against the walls of the artery. The stent is left in the artery to keep the artery open. This helps blood flow. The catheter is removed from your body.

What happens right after the procedure?

The catheter will be removed. A nurse or doctor may press on a bandage on the opening. Then a bandage or a compression device may be placed on your groin or wrist at the catheter insertion site. This prevents bleeding. After the procedure, you will be taken to a room where the catheter site and your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature will be checked several times. If the catheter was put in your groin, you will need to lie still and keep your leg straight for several hours. If the catheter was put in your arm, you may be able to sit up and get out of bed right away. But you will need to keep your arm still for at least 1 hour. You'll stay several hours or sometimes 1 night in the hospital. When you go home, you will get instructions from your doctor to help you recover well and prevent problems.

Make sure to drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to) for several hours after the procedure. This will help flush the dye out of your body.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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