Coronary artery luminal narrowing reduces the flow reserve for oxygenated blood to the heart, typically producing intermittent angina. Very advanced luminal occlusion usually produces a heart attack. However, it has been increasingly recognized, since the late 1980s, that coronary catheterization does not allow the recognition of the presence or absence of coronary atherosclerosis itself, only significant luminal changes which have occurred as a result of end stage complications of the atherosclerotic process. See IVUS and atheroma for a better understanding of this issue.
Since the late 1970s, building on the pioneering work of Charles Dotter in 1964 and especially Andreas Gruentzig starting in 1977, coronary catheterization has been extended to therapeutic uses: (a) the performance of less invasive physical treatment for angina and some of the complications of severe atherosclerosis, (b) treating heart attacks before complete damage has occurred and (c) research for better understanding of the pathology of coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis.
The patient being examined or treated is usually awake during catheterization, ideally with only local anaesthesia such as lidocaine and minimal general sedation, throughout the procedure. Performing the procedure with the patient awake is safer as the patient can immediately report any discomfort or problems and thereby facilitate rapid correction of any undesirable events. Medical monitors fail to give a comprehensive view of the patient's immediate well-being; how the patient feels is often a most reliable indicator of procedural safety.
Coronary catheterization is performed in a catheterization lab, usually located within a hospital. With current designs, the patient must lie relatively flat on a narrow, minimally padded, radiolucent (transparent to X-ray) table. The X-ray source and imaging camera equipment are on opposite sides of the patient's chest and freely move, under motorized control, around the patient's chest so images can be taken quickly from multiple angles. More advanced equipment, termed a bi-plane cath lab, uses two sets of X-ray source and imaging cameras, each free to move independently, which allows two sets of images to be taken with each injection of radiocontrast agent. The equipment and installation setup to perform such testing typically represents a capital expenditure of US$2–5 million (2004), sometimes more, partially repeated every few years.
The catheter is itself designed to be radiodense for visibility and it allows a clear, watery, blood compatible radiocontrast agent, commonly called an X-ray dye, to be selectively injected and mixed with the blood flowing within the artery. Typically 3–8 cc of the radiocontrast agent is injected for each image to make the blood flow visible for about 3–5 seconds as the radiocontrast agent is rapidly washed away into the coronary capillaries and then coronary veins. Without the X-ray dye injection, the blood and surrounding heart tissues appear, on X-ray, as only a mildly-shape-changing, otherwise uniform water density mass; no details of the blood and internal organ structure are discernible. The radiocontrast within the blood allows visualization of the blood flow within the arteries or heart chambers, depending on where it is injected.
Though not the focus of the test, calcification within the artery walls, located in the outer edges of atheroma within the artery walls, is sometimes recognizable on fluoroscopy (without contrast injection) as radiodense halo rings partially encircling, and separated from the blood filled lumen by the interceding radiolucent atheroma tissue and endothelial lining. Calcification, even though usually present, is usually only visible when quite advanced and calcified sections of the artery wall happen to be viewed on end tangentially through multiple rings of calcification, so as to create enough radiodensity to be visible on fluoroscopy.
By injecting radiocontrast agent through a tiny passage extending down the balloon catheter and into the balloon, the balloon is progressively expanded. The hydraulic pressures are chosen and applied by the physician, according to how the balloon within the stenosis (abnormal narrowing in a blood vessel) responds. The radiocontrast filled balloon is watched under fluoroscopy (it typically assumes a "dog bone" shape imposed on the outside of the balloon by the stenosis as the balloon is expanded), as it opens. As much hydraulic brute force is applied as judged needed and visualized to be effective to make the stenosis of the artery lumen visibly enlarge.
Stents, which are specially manufactured expandable stainless steel mesh tubes, mounted on a balloon catheter, are the most commonly used device beyond the balloon catheter. When the stent/balloon device is positioned within the stenosis, the balloon is inflated which, in turn, expands the stent and the artery. The balloon is removed and the stent remains in place, supporting the inner artery walls in the more open, dilated position. Current stents generally cost around $1,000 to 3,000 each (US 2004 dollars), the drug coated ones being the more expensive.
CT angiography can act as a less invasive alternative to Catheter angiography. Instead of a catheter being inserted into a vein or artery, CT angiography involves only the injection of a CT-visible dye into the arm or hand via an IV line. CT angiography lowers the risk of arterial perforation and catheter site infection. It provides 3D images that can be studied on computer, and also allows measurement of heart ventricle size. Infarct area and arterial calcium can also be observed (however those require a somewhat higher radiation exposure). That said, one advantage retained by Catheter angiography is the ability of the physician to perform procedure such as balloon angioplasty or insertion of a stent to improve blood flow to the artery.