During this procedure, the physician uses a balloon-tipped catheter to open one or more narrowed or blocked arteries in the heart. After opening a blocked artery, the physician may place an expandable mesh stent within the vessel to hold it open.
In preparation for the procedure, the patient is positioned and given a sedative. The site where the catheter will be introduced is numbed with an injection of a local anesthetic. Typically, the physician will insert the catheter into a blood vessel in the groin, but the catheter may also be inserted into a blood vessel in the arm.
The physician makes a small opening in the numbed tissue and inserts a protective sheath into the blood vessel. The physician introduces a guide wire through this sheath and carefully maneuvers it through the circulatory system to the heart. When it is in position, a catheter is pushed over the guide wire and up into the heart. The physician injects a small amount of contrast dye through the catheter. The dye moves through the blood vessels. The dye can be seen clearly with a fluoroscope (a camera that creates a real-time moving x-ray). This allows the physician to pinpoint the blockage.
Once the blockage has been identified, the physician carefully pushes a balloon-tipped catheter into the blocked artery. The physician inflates and deflates the small balloon on the end of the catheter several times. The balloon compresses the plaque into the wall of the artery. This widens the inside of the artery to improve blood flow. The balloon may be used at multiple locations.
In many cases, after an artery has been opened the physician will place a small, expandable mesh stent within it. This stent will keep the artery from narrowing again in the future.
When the cardiologist is sure that blood is flowing normally through the artery, the guide wire and catheters are removed. The patient is taken to a cardiac nursing unit, where the sheath is removed and the patient is monitored. If there are no complications, the patient may be discharged the next day.