Blocked arteries can cause serious health problems, such as heart attacks and strokes. In their initial stages, they might not need aggressive treatment. Often a patient can implement some simple lifestyle modifications combined with vitamins or medication. In advanced cases, she may require a more invasive procedure, such as catheterization or surgery. There is even an experimental gene therapy technique to help with certain types of blockages.
Many doctors treat blocked arteries by recommending lifestyle changes, either on their own or in tandem with medical intervention. These include a regular exercise schedule and a heart-healthy diet. If a patient is a smoker, he will be advised to quit. If the patient has already suffered a major problem because of blocked arteries, such as a heart attack, he will be given a specific cardiac rehabilitation plan.
Blocked arteries are often treated with over-the-counter medication, vitamins and prescription drugs. According to the Mayo Clinic, aspirin can thin the blood and help keep it from clotting, thus preventing blockages. Certain vitamins, such as B-6, B-12 and folic acid decrease the amount of homocysteine in the bloodstream. Because homocysteine has been linked to clots, this decreases the chance of developing one. Prescription drugs such as statins, beta blockers, nitroglycerin, ACE inhibitors and calcium channel blockers are also used to treat blocked arteries. Depending on the drug, they either prevent blockages, increase artery capacity and blood flow, or lower blood pressure.
The Mayo Clinic says there are two main procedures that use catheters to treat blocked arteries. In heart catheterization, the doctor inserts thin, flexible tubing into the blocked arteries in order to clear them. In an atherectomy, the catheter is used along with another device that can remove the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
In severe cases of artery blockage, surgical treatment may be necessary. Doctors have several procedures to choose from. One is coronary angioplasty, which opens the arteries and increases blood flow. The surgeon then implants stents to prevent the artery from closing up after the procedure. Another is radiation brachytherapy, in which the surgeon opens an artery segment and treats it with radiation. The third surgical option is a coronary artery bypass, in which the doctor creates a path around the blocked artery rather than clearing it out. This is accomplished by taking a blood vessel from elsewhere in the body and moving it to the heart. Multiple coronary bypasses can be done if a patient has several blockages.
Gene therapy to treat blocked arteries is still in the research stage. The Mayo Clinic has been investigating this technique, which involves injecting certain substances into the heart to restore blood flow. These include growth factor proteins and genes, and they can be delivered by direct injection or a catheter. It is believed that the substances can stimulate growth of new blood vessels, thus allowing more blood flow to the patient's heart.