"Thanks for helping my heart"

Brian Smith and the medical team that helped treat his heart attack

It’s a life-saving procedure that’s also improved the quality of life of thousands with heart disease. But what really happens during a coronary angioplasty? Sarah Brealey finds out.

Coronary angioplasty hit the headlines late last year when the Duke of Edinburgh was treated for chest pain. In fact, it’s a very common procedure for coronary heart disease and can be done either as a planned treatment for angina or in an emergency such as when someone is having a heart attack.

Coronary angioplasty – also known as a percutanous coronary intervention (PCI) – is a procedure to widen arteries around the heart that have become narrowed or blocked by a build-up of fatty material. At the start of the procedure a catheter – a fine, flexible, hollow tube – will be passed into an artery in either your groin or your arm. The operator then uses X-ray screening to direct the catheter into a coronary artery. This is sometimes called cardiac catheterisation.

A balloon is inflated inside the blocked artery, widening it so the blood can flow through more easily. Then a small tube of stainless steel mesh called a stent is inserted and, as the balloon is inflated, the stent expands so it holds open the blood vessel. Finally, the balloon is let down and removed, leaving the stent in place.

Watch a video of the procedure.

When done in an emergency, it’s called primary angioplasty or primary PCI, though the technique is the same as when it’s planned.

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