According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 26 million Americans have heart disease, and it ranks as the nation's leading cause of death. A relatively harmless tool, cardiac catheterization allows for the assessment and treatment of a variety of heart conditions. In fact, this well-understood procedure saves thousands of lives every day.
The catheterization process
Whether performed emergently or electively, a heart catheterization procedure, or simply "heart cath," begins with a local anesthetic applied to an IV entry point. Although sedated, the patient remains conscious. Since the femoral artery is the best pathway to the heart, the favored location is the groin area of the upper thigh. X-rays illuminate that pathway after an injection of contrast dye is administered through the IV. The physician then carefully guides thin catheter tubes of different sizes to the heart and its surrounding arteries.
Benefits of the procedure
A heart catheterization makes a number of diagnostic and treatment modalities possible. Few other cardiac tools offer so many benefits with so little intervention. It is able to:
Detect and graphically display blocked blood vessels.
Allow interventions, such as angioplasty, as alternatives to bypass surgery. Using tiny balloons to install steel webbing called stents along artery walls, once fatal blockages are repaired by the thousands every day.
To remove more calcified deposits, cardiac surgeons use a tiny burr-tipped drill.
Perform brachytherapy treatments, where radioactive sources are strategically placed to treat various cancers.
Risks and side effects
Although it is an invasive procedure, beyond the sting of the local anesthesia injection, the procedure is painless. If an emergent need is discovered or arises, the patient is already partially prepared for further anesthesia and surgery. Though very rare, some of the risks are serious and include:
Bleeding and infection around the IV site
Allergic reaction to the contrast die
Suffering a stroke
Cardiac catheterization procedures spare patients far more serious bypass surgeries and save healthcare dollars. Given the massive challenges presented by an aging population and a dramatic rise in the number of chronic diseases, the ability to reduce hospitalizations and save money through cardiac catheterization comes at an opportune time.