A stent is a tiny wire mesh tube that keeps an artery propped open to increase blood flow to the heart. When plaque builds up in a coronary artery (which feeds the heart muscle), it can narrow the artery, which may reduce blood flow to the heart and cause symptoms like chest pain. If a clot forms in this narrow passage and completely blocks blood flow, it will cause a heart attack.
Why do you need a stent in your heart?
If an artery is about 70% blocked, you may need a stent to keep the artery open, improve blood flow to the heart and relieve symptoms like chest pain. Stents are a permanent fixture to increase blood flow to your heart and reduce the chance of a heart attack.
Types of stents
There are three main types of stents used to open up coronary arteries.
- Bare metal stents are simple, metal mesh tubes.
- Drug-eluting stents are coated with a medicine that releases into the artery over time. This helps prevent the artery from narrowing again.
- Biodegradable stents are temporary stents that dissolve after a few months.
What to expect when getting a stent – during and after the procedure
Placing a stent is done through a minimally invasive procedure known as a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) or angioplasty (PDF). Your doctor will insert a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter into the blood vessels to your heart. This tube has an empty balloon at the end of it, which will get inflated with air to open up the narrowed artery – and place the stent.
After the procedure, your doctor will probably prescribe antiplatelet medications, or blood thinners, to prevent blood clots from forming and blocking the artery again. Medicines may include aspirin, clopidogrel, dipyridamole and ticlopidine. You may remain on medication for a year, or longer.
You should watch for complications after getting a stent. The risk of a blood clot with a stent is low, unless you stop taking your blood thinners. If you experience chest pain, it may be a symptom of restenosis, which is when there is tissue growth within the artery where the stent is placed, and it can lead to a heart attack. If restenosis develops, you may need another procedure, like the placement of a drug-eluting stent.
You should discuss stent recovery time with your health care professional. Most people need a few days to a week before they can return to work and resume physical activity after a stent. You should also check with your doctor about follow-up care. You may need to schedule an appointment with a specialist like a cardiologist or pulmonologist.
Download: What is a Stent? (PDF)