Inevitably, there are risks, some serious. Angioplasty can damage the heart, causing “impairment of cardiac function” or even “necrosis” (heart muscle death), in up to an astonishing 40 per cent of cases (Ital Heart J Suppl, 2005; 6: 553-60). In 4 per cent of cases, angioplasty can block the blood flow through the artery and, ironically, bring on a heart attack. Often, emergency open-heart surgery is then needed to save the patient’s life. In fact, according to the New York State Health Department 1995-1997 report, angioplasty kills one in 100 patients, a death rate that more than doubles if done soon after a heart attack (Coron Artery Dis, 2006; 17: 71-5).
What’s more, after angioplasty, the artery can still close up again. Called ‘restenosis’, doctors haven’t a clue why it happens. Restenosis may occur from one hour to six months after the procedure, and happens in about 30 per cent of cases (British Heart Foundation. Coronary angioplasty.www.bhf.org.uk). That failure rate can be reduced 10-fold, however, by the use of stents, tiny mesh-like cylinders that prop up the artery walls.
For severe atherosclerosis, or where angioplasty won’t work, surgeons may offer a bypass operation. This, of course, comes with its own raft of problems, not to mention that it fails to improve heart function in about half the cases (J Am Coll Cardiol, 1997; 30: 1451-60).