A doctor stands over you and feeds a long wire up the inside of your body, from your groin into your heart. You are conscious and comfortable, if not necessarily calm.
For nearly half a century, cardiologists have been performing angioplasty, or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). The point is to open up arteries that have become clogged and hardened by years of life—to reverse and improve the symptoms of heart disease. Today the procedure is done around a million times each year in the United States alone. In the span of 45 minutes or so, the looming cardiologist watches a screen as real-time X-ray images show the wire going up to the heart, traversing vessels to reach the coronary arteries. The cardiologist then feeds a small balloon over that wire and inflates it, forcing open the blood vessels at the point of narrowing. The vessels can be held open with a metal tube that expands over the balloon, known as a stent. Immediately, the vessels look better on the X-ray images. The narrow area is wide open, and blood is flowing freely.
“When we tell a patient, look, we ‘fixed’ you, this has an immense positive effect,” said John Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Louisville, Kentucky.
He and many others have watched as their patients tend to report less chest pain, more energy, better stamina, and “all sorts of benefits.” As the Mayo Clinic tells readers of its site, “Angioplasty is used to treat a type of heart disease known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the slow buildup of fatty plaques in your heart’s blood vessels. Your doctor might suggest angioplasty as a treatment option when medications or lifestyle changes aren’t enough to improve your heart health, or if you have a heart attack, worsening chest pain (angina), or other symptoms.”