Heart stent unnecessary? Maybe

More news coming out of the American College of Cardiology meeting in New Orleans. Too bad Dr. Wes is not there to give us the inside scoop (he he, just kidding).

The theory with heart stents is pretty easy to explain to patients. The paradigm has been that symptoms of angina, or chest pain, are caused by a slight blockage in the tiny heart vessles (see above - image from here). So, why not open the vessel up with a heart stent and relieve the chest pain. Simple, right?

In this Associated Press article, researchers have found that in people with stable angina, medication treatment (meaning pills) is just as good as having an angioplasty procedure and having a heart stent placed.

It involved 2,287 patients throughout the U.S. and Canada who had substantial blockages, typically in two arteries, but were medically stable. They had an average of 10 chest pain episodes a week — moderately severe. About 40 percent had a prior heart attack.

All were treated with medicines that improve chest pain and heart and artery health such as aspirin, cholesterol-lowering statins, nitrates, ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers. All also were counseled on healthy lifestyles — diet, exercise and smoking cessation. Half of the participants also were assigned to get angioplasty.

After an average of 4 1/2 years, the groups had similar rates of death and heart attack: 211 in the angioplasty group and 202 in the medication group — about 19 percent of each.

After five years, 74 percent of the angioplasty group and 72 percent of the medication group were free of chest pain - "no significant difference," [one of the researchers] said.

The results of this study will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine and will send shockwaves through the world of cardiology. This will be a huge paradigm shift in what is the current thinking.

This will set up a philosophical and academic war between the interventional cardiologist (those that make a lot of their living doing angioplasties and stents) and the cardiologist who do few or no angioplasties. It will also be a business war between the drug makers and the stent makers.

It will come down to this question: When a patient has chest pain, what is the better treatment? Drugs AND stent or Drugs WITHOUT stent? We'll have to see how this plays out....

Now, something I am concerned about is what the press report really passed over very quickly. (Surprised that I'm upset at the press again?) What should be emphasized is that this study relates to patients who are medically stable. Medically stable means not actively having a heart attack or actively having worsening chest pain symptoms right in front of you.

I can see a heart attack patient in the ER tomorrow saying, "I just heard this report saying that an angioplasty and stent are not needed. Plus, there have been a lot of bad press lately about stents anyway. I don't want one."

I want to emphazise that in the emergency situation (meaning heart attack and/or worsening chest pain symptoms) -- Angioplasty and stent placement are not only the mainstay of treatment, they have been shown to save lives. So, interpret these study findings how they were presented -- in medically stable patients -- and don't interpret this as a generalization on angioplasty and stents in general.