Benefits and Risks of a Heart Stent
The procedure to place a cardiac stent goes by many names: angioplasty, stenting, catheterization, percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), and several others. No matter what your doctor calls it, the procedure can save the life of a person experiencing a heart attack or prevent an attack in someone at high risk due to coronary artery disease (CAD). But heart stents themselves also carry risks. Unless you’re experiencing a cardiac emergency, you should learn more about the risks and benefits of heart stents before you undergo the procedure.
Cardiac stents are tiny devices that hold open arteries in the heart that have become narrowed or blocked by a buildup of cholesterol plaques. When any of the heart’s arteries (also called the coronary arteries) become blocked, they stop oxygen-rich blood from flowing to the heart tissue. This can cause a heart attack.
An interventional cardiologist can place a coil-shaped stent inside the narrowed artery to hold it open and allow blood and oxygen to flow to the heart muscle again. Placing angioplasty stents has become a common procedure for people experiencing a heart attack, and for those who have not had a heart attack but whose coronary arteries appear narrowed on imaging tests (such as, a computed tomography (CT) scan or echocardiogram).
Heart stents save lives every day. For a person experiencing a heart attack, placing a stent can immediately restore oxygen flow to the heart muscle, sparing further tissue damage and allowing the individual to enjoy many more years of life.
The minimally invasive angioplasty procedure used to place cardiac stents also confers several benefits over open heart surgery, including:
Faster recovery time
Lower infection rate
No general anesthesia risks
While heart stents clearly save lives, the devices themselves–along with the procedure to place them–come with several risks. It’s possible to experience a complication during the catheterization procedure, and have complications after stent placement.
The most common cardiac stent risks include:
Allergic reaction to any imaging dyes or substances used during the procedure
Bleeding or hematoma at the catheterization site
Blood clot at the stent site
Blood vessel damage
Excessive tissue growth at the stent site in the years following the procedure
Kidney damage from imaging dyes
Many people who receive a stent must take aspirin or another anticoagulant medication for several weeks after the procedure. These medications can cause serious internal bleeding that requires hospitalization and can increase a person’s risk of death.
Some heart stents slowly release a medication designed to reduce the chance of excessive tissue growth around the stent. This type of stent, called a drug-eluting stent, carries a higher risk of blood clots. People who receive drug-eluting stents may need to take an anticoagulant for the rest of their lives to minimize the clot risk.
The risks of heart stents may sound serious, but they do not approach the risks of open-heart surgery. For people who can safely avoid undergoing a coronary artery bypass graft surgery, angioplasty stents offer an effective treatment for advanced coronary artery disease and heart attack.
With a faster recovery time and lower risk of complications than open-heart surgery, you can emerge from a cardiac stent procedure quickly and move forward to enjoy your life again.