A procedure used to relieve chest pain in hundreds of thousands of heart patients each year is useless for many of them, researchers reported on Wednesday. Their study focused on the insertion of stents, tiny wire cages, to open blocked arteries. The devices are lifesaving when used to open arteries in patients in the throes of a heart attack. But they are most often used in patients who have a blocked artery and chest pain that occurs, for example, walking up a hill or going up stairs. Sometimes patients get stents when they have no pain at all, just blockages. Heart disease is still the leading killer of Americans — 790,000 people have heart attacks each year — and stenting is a mainstay treatment in virtually every hospital. More than 500,000 heart patients worldwide have stents inserted each year to relieve chest pain, according to the researchers.
Other estimates are far higher. Several companies — including Boston Scientific, Medtronic and Abbott Laboratories — sell the devices, and inserting them costs from $11,000 to $41,000 at hospitals in the United States. The new study, published in the Lancet, stunned leading cardiologists by countering decades of clinical experience. The findings raise questions about whether stents should be used so often — or at all — to treat chest pain. “It’s a very humbling study for someone who puts in stents,” said Brahmajee K Nallamothu, an interventional cardiologist at the University of Michigan. William E Boden, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, called the results “unbelievable.” David Maron, a cardiologist at Stanford University, praised the new study as “very well conducted” but said that it left some questions unanswered. The participants had a profound blockage but only in one artery, he noted, and they were assessed after just six weeks. “We don’t know if the conclusions apply to people with more severe disease,” Maron said. “And we don’t know if the conclusions apply for a longer period of observation.” For the study, Justin E Davies, a cardiologist at Imperial College London, and his colleagues recruited 200 patients with a profoundly blocked coronary artery and chest pain severe enough to limit physical activity, common reasons for inserting a stent. All were treated for six weeks with drugs to reduce the risk of a heart attack, like aspirin, a statin and a blood pressure drug, as well as medications that relieve chest pain by slowing the heart or opening blood vessels.
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