Heart stents are a potentially lifesaving treatment in preventing heart damage during and after a heart attack. The procedure opens arteries that are causing the heart attack and can relieve other blockages that may be causing chest discomfort called “angina.”
But before getting stents in your heart, you’ll want to consider both the risks of heart stent treatment and how it benefits your cardiac health.
Who qualifies for a heart stent?
When medication and lifestyle changes have failed to fully address heart problems or your symptoms, doctors may use angioplasty or place a stent for specific heart issues.
Plaque or fatty deposits caused by high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking or high blood pressure may create a blockage (stenosis) in an artery which can ultimately limit blood flow to the heart muscle. This stenosis can cause a heart attack or a constellation of symptoms called angina which can include chest discomfort or pain, jaw or arm pain, shortness of breath with exertion, nausea, and profuse sweating. This plaque formed in the heart arteries is known as coronary artery disease.
The placement of a stent quickly relieves both chronic and acute coronary symptoms.
How does a heart stent work?
Imagine an artery as a sink pipe clogged with debris. Just as the debris in the sink pipe begins to restrict the free flow of water to drain, buildup in your arteries restricts the natural flow of blood to the heart muscle leading to chronic or acute heart symptoms.
To place a stent, we guide a roll of metal mesh (resembling chicken wire or a chain-link fence) wrapped on a tiny balloon down the pipe and through the blockage. The balloon inflates, embedding the mesh into the pipe, then the balloon is removed. Just as with the mesh in the clogged pipe, the stent is now embedded into your artery, having pushed the plaque or blockage against the artery walls, allowing blood in the artery to flow briskly again.
Stents are now embedded with medications that prevent future blockages. These exciting “drug-eluding” stents continue to improve with technology every year. Our interventional program has been privileged to test every new stent released in the past 20 years and to participate in or lead a host of clinical trials related to improving the stenting procedure.
How safe is a heart stent procedure?
Any time we place a catheter or foreign body in an artery, there is a small chance of a complication. Arterial bleeding that may require surgery to repair occurs in about 1% of these procedures. There is a very small chance (less than 1%) of experiencing a heart attack during the procedure, and an even smaller risk of stroke.
Overall, stent procedures are extremely safe and effective, but always talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
What does heart stent recovery look like?
Most of our stent recipients are discharged the same day. We’ll ask you to refrain from driving for a day as the medications wear off, and not to lift more than five or 10 pounds for the next week. After that, you can immediately resume all activities.
If you’re receiving a stent after a heart attack, your pain often resolves the moment blood flow is re-established to the artery. If your stent is for chest discomfort that comes during physical exertion, you’ll experience relief as soon as you begin exerting again—it’s that instantaneous.
Ready for a stent?
It’s important to work closely with your care team on your next steps after being diagnosed with a heart condition. Talk with your cardiologist so you have a clear understanding of the risks and benefits of stent implantation. Keep close control of your risk factors for coronary heart disease, including managing hypertension and diabetes, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and smoking cessation.
Think it might be time to see a cardiologist? Find care near you today.
About the author
Robert C. Stoler, MD, is an interventional cardiologist, co-medical director of cardiology and the medical director of the cardiac catheterization lab at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas.