Honoring Angioplasty's Anniversary

A new era in heart health debuted 30 years ago this week.

September 17, 1977 was the date of the first angioplasty. Today, the National Institutes of Health says more than a million people in the U.S. undergo angioplasty each year, clearing out the blockages in the arteries that once carried a much greater chance of taking your life.

Dr. Patrick Sheehy with the Cotton-O'Neil Heart Center says our heart is working all the time without us thinking about it. Therefore, it needs to have a good blood supply. When arteries narrow and start to cut off that supply, it can lead to chest pain and even heart attack.

Before angioplasty, Dr. Sheehy says, there wasn't much doctors could do about it. He says medications could try to clear up clots caused by the blockage, but the arteries themselves would remain block. The medications would work to try to limit the amount of work the heart was doing.

Angioplasty meant a real shot at treating the cause of the problem. Doctors use a tiny inflatable balloon on a catheter to break through and push aside the plaque clogging the arteries. Before angioplasty, one in four heart attack patients died. Today, more than 95-percent survive. Dr. Sheehy says patients can come and be diagnosed with a heart attack and, within an hour, be in the cath lab having their blockages cleared. He says that saves heart muscle and prevents the damage heart attacks can cause.

In the 30 years since angioplasty debuted, Dr. Sheehy says the wires and balloons became smaller and easier to work with; in the early 90s, stents were introduced, expandable wire mesh that stays in and holds the artery open; a few years ago, stents coated in medication to prevent scarring hit the market; and modern imaging technology can spot blockages that might require angioplasty earlier.

In some ways, Dr. Sheehy says the future is here and work will continue on the best ways to use it to give people long, healthy lives. As for what he foresees, Dr. Sheehy believes research is working toward dissolvable stents. He says it could be a benefit to have nothing artificial remaining in the body.


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