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How Your Wrist May Play a Role in Treating Heart Disease

September 24, 2015

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and more than 26 million Americans currently have this disease.

Because it is so widespread, we constantly look for better ways to diagnose and treat heart patients. Early diagnosis and intervention can be lifesaving. We currently use several testing methods to diagnose heart disease and coronary artery disease (CAD), a condition that develops when the arteries that supply blood flow to the heart fill with plaque or become inflamed. These tests include an EKG and echocardiography, which assess the heart’s electrical activity and provide information on its size, shape and functioning, respectively; and a angiography, which examines the arteries for blockages. A chest X-ray and blood tests also help us identify early warning signs of congestive heart failure and coronary heart disease, which is caused by CAD.

Minimally invasive techniques, like cardiac catheterization, also have been beneficial in diagnosing and treating heart disease. The method involves inserting a catheter, which is a long, thin tube, through the femoral artery and into the heart. The femoral artery is a large artery in the thigh that supplies blood flow to the lower limbs. Using this artery for cardiac catheterization has become the standard, but it also comes with certain risks such as nerve damage and bleeding at the site where we insert the catheter—though these complications are rare. Patients who undergo this procedure also must lie flat for up to six hours to give the artery time to heal and to minimize the risk of bleeding.

Wrist Arteries & Treating Heart Disease

However, in some people it may not be necessary to use the femoral artery at all. The arteries in your wrist (called the radial artery) also help us diagnose and treat heart disease. People who have good blood supply to their hands are the best candidates for radial artery access. During this procedure, we insert a catheter into the arteries in your wrist to reach the heart.

Using the wrist arteries is more beneficial because there are fewer complications compared to using the femoral artery. Recovery is easier, too. You don’t have to lie still for several hours after the procedure. After we remove the catheter, we place a wristband-like, compression device around the wrist to apply pressure to the artery. This technique allows patients to eat, sit up or walk immediately after the procedure. We also hear from many people that this technique is less painful than standard cardiac catheterization.

Despite the differences in these two procedures, they both take the same amount of time to perform. We can do almost anything for the heart from the wrist that we also could do via the groin area. This includes assessing blockages in the leg, but several companies are currently working on technology to expand these capabilities.

Are You a Candidate for Radial Artery Heart Catheterization?

If you need to be tested for heart disease or are at high risk for this condition, use a doctor who has plenty of experience with this procedure. He or she will do an Allen Test to assess blood flow to your hands. This test helps us determine whether the ulnar artery, the main blood vessel in the forearm, still can supply blood to your hands in the event the radial artery cannot. If the test is positive, your doctor will proceed with radial artery catheterization.

Regardless of the method we use to diagnose and treat heart disease, our goal is to save lives. The earlier we identify an issue, the faster we can treat it. But technology only can do so much. If you have a high risk for heart disease or have been recently diagnosed, diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes are the best ways to improve heart health. Living the healthiest life may help you avoid procedures like cardiac catheterization in the future.