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What is Angioplasty?

Angioplasty is a common, minimally invasive procedure performed to restore blood flow in arteries and veins that have become narrowed or blocked. Age or illness can cause plaque to build up at certain spots within the veins and arteries, and if enough collects, it can restrict the flow of blood. Angioplasty uses a tiny balloon at the end of a small, flexible tube to inflate within the narrowed section and open it up again.

Angioplasty may be performed in several different areas of the body and for a variety of reasons, most often:
  • Peripheral arterial disease, which reduces blood flow in the arms or legs
  • Atherosclerosis, or general hardening of the arteries
  • Carotid artery stenosis, or narrowing of the arteries in the neck that supply the brain
  • Coronary artery disease, or narrowing of the arteries near the heart
  • Renal vascular hypertension, or narrowing of the arteries in the kidney, leading to increased blood pressure

During angioplasty, a patient is given a sedative while lying on a table under an x-ray machine. A catheter (a thin, flexible, and hollow tube) is inserted into the patient’s skin in the arm or groin and guided into the blocked artery. Dye is injected via the catheter, and x-rays are used to position the tip of the catheter exactly at the blockage. The tiny balloon is guided through the catheter and inflated with saline. It pushes the plaque out of the way, squishing it against the walls of the artery. The balloon may be inflated and deflated several times to let blood pass by. A stent, a tiny tube of metal mesh like a spring, may be inserted to help keep the artery open. Then the x-ray is used again to check that blood is flowing properly, the catheter is removed, and the tiny incision is bandaged.

There are no nerves within veins and arteries, so an angioplasty is generally not painful. However, there may be some discomfort at the site of the incision and when the balloon is inflated. Overall, angioplasty is a very effective and low-risk procedure, useful for helping patients avoid more difficult bypass surgery.