Plaque is the buildup of cholesterol, fat, and other substances in an artery's inner lining. Several procedures have been developed to remove harmful plaque from arteries. In a procedure called an atherectomy, a catheter with a rotating shaver on its tip is inserted into an artery to cut away plaque. Another plaque-removal technique is laser angioplasty, in which a catheter with a laser at its tip is threaded into an artery, where it vaporizes the plaque. Each of these procedures may be used alone or with angioplasty.
A stent is a tiny wire mesh tube that is used to prop open an artery. A stent is commonly used along with angioplasty and/or plaque removal. In this procedure, a stent is placed over a balloon catheter and then moved into the area of the blockage. When the balloon is inflated, the stent expands and locks into place, holding open the artery. The stent remains in the artery permanently, improving blood flow to the heart muscle and relieving chest pain.
A stent reduces the chances that an artery will narrow again after an angioplasty and/or plaque removal. Newer types of stents are coated with medication that is slowly released and helps to keep the blood vessel from closing up again.
Stenting may be particularly beneficial for women. In a large study of heart attack patients, women who received a stent were less likely to suffer a major heart complication during the following year, and also less likely to need a repeat procedure than those who received balloon angioplasty without stenting.