What you can expect
During the procedure
Angioplasty is performed by a heart specialist (cardiologist) and a team of specialized cardiovascular nurses and technicians in a special operating room called a cardiac catheterization laboratory.
Angioplasty is performed through an artery in your groin, arm or wrist area. General anesthesia isn't needed. You'll receive a sedative to help you relax, but you may be awake during the procedure depending on how deeply you are sedated.
- You'll receive fluids, medications to relax you and blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants) through an IV catheter in your hand or arm.
- Your heart rate, pulse, blood pressure and oxygen level will be monitored during the procedure.
- Your doctor will prepare the area in your leg, arm or wrist with an antiseptic solution and will place a sterile sheet over your body.
- Your doctor will use a local anesthetic to numb the area where a very small incision will be made. A small, thin guidewire is then inserted in the blood vessel.
- With the help of live X-rays, your doctor will thread a thin tube (catheter) through your artery.
- Contrast dye is injected through the catheter once it is in place. This allows your doctor to see the inside of your blood vessels and identify the blockage on X-ray images called angiograms.
- A small balloon with or without a stent at the tip of the catheter is inflated at the site of the blockage, widening the blocked artery. After the artery is stretched, the balloon is deflated and the catheter is removed.
- If you have several blockages, the procedure may be repeated at each blockage.
Angioplasty can take up to several hours, depending on the difficulty and number of blockages and whether any complications arise.
You might feel pressure in the area where the catheter is inserted. You may also feel some mild discomfort when the balloon is inflated and your artery is stretched, but typically you shouldn't feel any sharp pain during the procedure.
Most people who have an angioplasty also have a stent placed in their blocked artery during the same procedure. A stent, which looks like a tiny coil of wire mesh, supports the walls of your artery and helps prevent it from re-narrowing after the angioplasty.
Here's what happens during a stent placement:
- The stent, which is collapsed around a balloon at the tip of the catheter, is guided through the artery to the blockage.
- At the blockage, the balloon is inflated and the spring-like stent expands and locks into place inside the artery.
- The stent stays in the artery permanently to hold it open and improve blood flow to your heart. In some cases, more than one stent may be needed to open a blockage.
- Once the stent is in place, the balloon catheter is deflated and removed.
- More X-ray images (angiograms) are taken to see how well blood flows through your newly widened artery.
Most stents implanted during an angioplasty are drug coated. The medication in the stent is slowly released to help prevent future plaque buildup and the re-narrowing of the blood vessel.
After your stent placement, your doctor will prescribe medications, such as aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), ticagrelor (Brilinta) or prasugrel (Effient), to reduce the chance of blood clots forming on the stent.
After the procedure
If you had a nonemergency procedure, you'll probably remain at the hospital overnight while your heart is monitored and your medications are adjusted. You generally should be able to return to work or your normal routine the week after angioplasty.
When you return home, drink plenty of fluids to help flush your body of the contrast dye. Avoid strenuous exercise and lifting heavy objects for at least a day afterward. Ask your doctor or nurse about other restrictions in activity.
Call your doctor's office or hospital staff immediately if:
- The site where your catheter was inserted starts bleeding or swelling
- You develop pain or discomfort at the site where your catheter was inserted
- You have signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, drainage or fever
- There's a change in temperature or color of the leg or arm that was used for the procedure
- You feel faint or weak
- You develop chest pain or shortness of breath
It's important that you closely follow your doctor's recommendations about your treatment with blood-thinning medications — aspirin and clopidogrel (Plavix), prasugrel (Effient) or similar medications.
Most people who have undergone angioplasty with or without stent placement will need to take aspirin indefinitely. Those who have had stent placement will need a blood-thinning medication, such as clopidogrel, for six months to a year. If you have any questions or if you need any other type of surgery, talk to your cardiologist before stopping any of these medications.