Angioplasty and stents

Angioplasty is a treatment that uses stents to improve blood flow to the heart by opening a narrowed or blocked coronary artery. Find out the pros and cons and what to expect when having an angioplasty.

Angiogram showing how a stent can widen an arteryCoronary angioplasty uses a special balloon and a metal mesh tube (stent) to open up a narrowed or blocked coronary artery. In the long term, this should improve blood flow to the heart muscle and result in less or no angina. Angioplasty is sometimes used as an emergency treatment for people that have had a heart attack. You’ll usually have angiography before your angioplasty, but sometimes this is done at the same time.  

Note: An angioplasty is not a cure for heart disease. It may help control your symptoms, but it does not fix the underlying heart disease that caused the symptoms in the first place. To lower your chance of further heart problems, you will need to make and maintain changes to your lifestyle.

What is a stent?

A stent is a metal mesh tube that can be inserted into a narrowed artery. It acts as an internal support framework to keep the artery open, by continuing to press plaque back against the artery wall. This allows blood to flow freely through the artery.

Often a stent is coated with medication which is slowly released into the surrounding area, helping to lower the chance of the artery blocking again.

The start of the procedure is the same as for angiography, with a catheter insertion site prepared in your arm or groin. A thin flexible plastic tube (catheter) is then guided to the site of a narrowing or blockage in your coronary arteries.

What does a stent do

You may need to stay in hospital for several hours or overnight following the procedure. You may be asked to drink fluids to prevent dehydration and flush the dye from your kidneys.

Before going home, a nurse will teach you how to check the site for bleeding and explain what to do if this does happen. If the groin was the site used, you may be asked to avoid heavy lifting and straining for a week to prevent bleeding.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) medical guidelines state that you must not drive a car for two days after having angioplasty. If you have complications, or have had a heart attack resulting in angioplasty, you must not drive until you have been given medical clearance by your doctor.

Most people resume normal everyday activities within one to two days of returning home and can usually go back to work after a week. Depending on your condition, it may take you more or less time to resume everyday activities. You may like to discuss this with your cardiologist. 

You might be invited to go on a cardic rehabilitation programme. Explore our HeartHelp directory to find a list of your local programmes.

As with all medical procedures, there are both risks and benefits associated with having an angioplasty.

Talk to your doctor, nurse and other health professional about the risks and benefits for you, and any concerns you may have. Your healthcare team can give you more information about your individual circumstances and level of risk.

Minor complications may include:

  • Bleeding under the skin at the wound site – this should improve after a few days, but please contact your GP if you are concerned
  • Bruising – it is common to have a bruise from the catheter for a few weeks
  • Allergy to the contrast dye used, causing symptoms such as a rash  – you should discuss any allergies that you have with your cardiologist before having the procedure.

More serious complications are uncommon, but may include:

  • Damage to the artery in the arm or groin from the catheter, possibly affecting blood supply to the limb
  • Heart attack 
  • Stroke 
  • Damage to the kidneys caused by the contrast dye
  • Tissue damage caused by X-ray radiation if the procedure is prolonged
  • Serious bleeding
  • Death.

You are more likely to develop complications based on:

  • Your age – the older you are, the higher your risk
  • If the procedure was planned or is emergency treatment – emergency treatment is always riskier because there is less time to plan it and the patient is unwell to start with
  • If you have kidney disease – the dye used during an angioplasty can occasionally cause further damage to your kidneys
  • If you have one or more blocked coronary arteries
  • If you have a history of serious heart disease

For more information about what to expect when getting a stent, explore our PDF resource.

Get the angioplasty resource