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Atherectomy is a non-surgical procedure to open blocked coronary arteries or vein grafts by using a device on the end of a catheter to cut or shave away atherosclerotic plaque (a deposit of fat and other substances that accumulate in the lining of the artery wall).


Atherectomy is performed to restore the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, to relieve chest pain, and to prevent heart attacks. It may be done on patients with chest pain who have not responded to other medical therapy and on certain of those who are candidates for balloon angioplasty (a surgical procedure in which a balloon catheter is used to flatten plaque against an artery wall) or coronary artery bypass graft surgery. It is sometimes performed to remove plaque that has built up after a coronary artery bypass graft surgery.


Atherectomy should not be performed when the plaque is located where blood vessels divide into branches, when plaque is angular or inside an angle of a blood vessel, on patients with weak vessel walls, on ulcerated or calcium-hardened lesions, or on blockages through which a guide wire won't pass.


Atherectomy uses a rotating shaver or other device placed on the end of a catheter to slice away or destroy plaque. At the beginning of the procedure, medications to control blood pressure, dilate the coronary arteries, and prevent blood clots are administered. The patient is awake but sedated. The catheter is inserted into an artery in the groin, leg, or arm, and threaded through the blood vessels into the blocked coronary artery. The cutting head is positioned against the plaque and activated, and the plaque is ground up or suctioned out.

The types of atherectomy are rotational, directional, and transluminal extraction. Rotational atherectomy uses a high speed rotating shaver to grind up plaque. Directional atherectomy was the first type approved, but is no longer commonly used; it scrapes plaque into an opening in one side of the catheter. Transluminal extraction coronary atherectomy uses a device that cuts plaque off vessel walls and vacuums it into a bottle. It is used to clear bypass grafts.

Performed in a cardiac catheterization lab, atherectomy is also called removal of plaque from the coronary arteries. It can be used instead of, or along with, balloon angioplasty. Atherectomy is successful about 95% of the time. Plaque forms again in 20-30% of patients.


The day before atherectomy, the patient takes medication to prevent blood clots and may be asked to bathe and shampoo with an antiseptic skin cleaner.


After the procedure, the patient spends several days in the hospital's cardiac monitoring area. For at least 20 minutes, pressure is applied to a dressing on the insertion site. For the first hour, an electrocardiogram and close monitoring are conducted; vital signs are checked every 15 minutes. Pain medication is then administered. The puncture site is checked once an hour or more. For most of the first 24 hours, the patient remains in bed.


Chest pain is the most common complication of atherectomy. Other common complications are injury to the blood vessel lining, plaque that re-forms, blood clots (hematoma), and bleeding at the site of insertion. More serious but less frequent complications are blood vessel holes, blood vessel wall tears, or reduced blood flow to the heart.


Atherosclerotic plaque A deposit of fat and other substances that accumulate in the lining of the artery wall.

Balloon angioplasty A surgical procedure in which a balloon catheter is used to flatten plaque against an artery wall.

Coronary arteries The two main arteries that provide blood to the heart. The coronary arteries surround the heart like a crown, coming out of the aorta, arching down over the top of the heart, and dividing into two branches. These are the arteries where coronary artery disease occurs.

Hematoma A localized collection of blood, usually clotted, due to a break in the wall of blood vessel.



McPhee, Stephen, et al., editors. Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1998. 37th ed. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1997.


American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300.

Texas Heart Institute. Heart Information Service. PO Box 20345, Houston, TX 77225-0345.