Are stents effective for chest pain? New research suggests otherwise

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New research published in the medical journal "The Lancet" may change the way patients are treated. (KABC)

Dr. David Sato listens to Helen Schmitz's heart. It sounds great now, but less than a month ago, the 65-year-old had complete blockage of one of her major arteries. For two years, Schmitz felt unusual symptoms.

"If I walked up a flight of stairs I'd get this heaviness in my chest, and it would eventually radiate down my shoulders, down to my elbows. It was obvious symptoms," Schmitz said.

Her doctors chose to insert a stent -- tiny mesh wires used to prop open blocked blood vessels. But now, new research published in the journal, "The Lancet" may change the way patients like Schmitz are treated.

"Oftentimes, when a cardiologist finds himself in the lab with a patient who is having symptoms, or who has had symptoms, and they find a lesion like that, it's hard not to put a stent in. But this study says it's OK not to," said Sato.

In the study, 230 patients with chest pain were first stabilized with medicine. Then some were given either stents or a placebo procedure. Every participant was also given medication such as aspirin or blood thinners.

After six weeks, researchers found those who got the sham procedure reported less pain just as often as those who got stents.

Sato said previous research seems to support some of the findings of this study.

"There's been data before, in other situations, that tells us that treating with medications is just as good as intervening," he said.

Many heart patients may prefer stents, because they often want something physically done for their chest pain. But doctors remind us: Stents come with risks.
"It's a procedure, you can have bleeding complications. When you put a stent in, you can get scar tissue formation within the stent, which can narrow the stent," said Sato.

In this research, patients were only followed for six weeks. He'd like to see a longer follow-up.

Sato also said doctors should be more selective in choosing patients to bring into the cath lab.

Schmitz is glad doctors decided to take her in. "They wouldn't have known how blocked it was until I got there, and that's a risk that wouldn't have wanted to take," she said.

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