"All cardiology guidelines should be revised," according to one doctor, based on new study results some experts are calling "unbelievable": Heart stents, inserted in hundreds of thousands of patients per year to relieve chest pain, don't appear to actually relieve the pain. Researchers looked at 200 people with narrowed coronary arteries whose chest pain was bad enough to limit activity; all of them received the same pre-op and post-op treatment (including medication aimed at relieving chest pain). Then, some received surgery to insert a real stent while some got a fake procedure; neither the patients nor the researchers knew which group they were in. The good news: Both groups reported feeling less pain six weeks later, and both groups performed better on a treadmill test. The bad news: There was no difference in pain level between the two groups, the New York Times reports.
Subjects who received real stents did, however, experience improved blood flow through the artery that had been partially blocked. But since stent procedures carry risks, including death, a doctor who wrote an editorial accompanying the study says that based on these results, stents should only be given to patients having heart attacks. A previous study found stents did not prevent heart attacks or deaths from heart disease, but cardiologists continue to use them to ease chest pain. As a press release explains, the new study was focused on patients with only narrowed arteries, meaning they would be getting the procedure for pain relief. Some experts point out limitations of the new study, including the fact that it only followed patients for six weeks and it did not look at patients with more severe blockages or blockages in more than one artery. And even the lead researchers won't go so far as to say some patients with severe disease should avoid stents, noting that medication is not an option for everyone. (Read more heart disease stories.)