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Patient education: Angina treatment — medical versus interventional therapy (Beyond the Basics)

Julian M Aroesty, MD
Section Editor
Donald Cutlip, MD
Deputy Editor
Gordon M Saperia, MD, FACC
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In people who have coronary artery disease, the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle get clogged with fatty deposits called plaques (figure 1). These plaques can reduce the flow of blood to the heart muscle, which can in turn cause chest pain or discomfort, especially during exertion. This chest pain is called "angina."

Angina can be "stable" or "unstable." Angina is unstable when there is a change in the usual pattern, such as a change in frequency, severity, duration, or precipitating cause. Unstable angina may be associated with damage to the heart muscle (or heart attack). The term “acute coronary syndrome” refers to people with unstable angina or a heart attack; these conditions require immediate evaluation in a hospital.

There are several treatment options for people with stable angina. These options are classified as medical therapy (medications) and interventional treatment (procedures to open or bypass narrowed coronary arteries). The choice among these treatment options depends upon many individual factors, including a person's age, the severity of the coronary heart disease, the relative risks and benefits of various treatments, the presence of other medical conditions, and personal preferences.

Because coronary heart disease is typically a chronic disease requiring long-term treatment, it is very important to learn as much as possible about this disease and about the benefits and risks of the various treatment options. You should discuss all of these options with a healthcare provider to determine which treatment is best.


All of the medical and interventional treatments for people with coronary heart disease have the same goals: to improve quality of life and to alleviate symptoms such as angina. In some people, these interventions may also delay or stop the progression of the disease and thereby prolong life.


Medical treatment for coronary heart disease includes drugs called antianginal drugs, which alleviate symptoms and support heart function. It also includes lifestyle modifications. Medical treatment is usually considered first for all people with coronary heart disease. Medical therapy is discussed in detail in a separate article. (See "Patient education: Medications for angina (Beyond the Basics)".)


The interventional treatments for coronary heart disease include the following:


Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG).

These treatments effectively relieve symptoms of coronary heart disease, such as angina, but they do not significantly increase life expectancy for most people. Because these treatments actively restore blood flow to the heart muscle, they are often called revascularization procedures.

Stenting — Stenting, also known as "percutaneous coronary intervention" or PCI, is a procedure that uses a flexible plastic catheter with a tiny balloon at the end to dilate narrowed arteries in the heart. A metal stent is then placed at the site of a major blockage to hold the artery open. This procedure (which also used to be called "angioplasty") is discussed in detail in a separate article. (See "Patient education: Stenting for the heart (Beyond the Basics)".)

Rarely, a stent is not able to be placed, and the procedure is stopped after the treatment with the balloon alone. In some cases, balloon treatment alone will be successful in restoring blood flow.

Coronary artery bypass graft surgery — CABG involves sewing one end of an artery or vein above a blocked coronary artery and the other end below the blockage, thereby allowing blood an alternate pathway to the heart. The arteries or veins used for the bypass (which are known as "grafts") are usually obtained from the leg or the chest wall. CABG is discussed in detail in a separate article. (See "Patient education: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (Beyond the Basics)".)


Several factors can help determine whether medical or interventional treatment is a better choice. You should discuss all of these factors with your healthcare provider.

Results of studies — As a result of studies that compared medical to interventional treatment, many experts do not recommend using interventional treatment initially unless you have certain characteristics (see below) or you cannot tolerate or do not improve with aggressive medical treatment.

Results of tests — Certain tests are used to determine the extent of coronary heart disease. These tests may determine if medical or interventional treatment is more appropriate and can help decide which interventional option (angioplasty or bypass surgery) is best. As examples:

Exercise ECG testing — An exercise test can often determine if you have a risk of a heart attack or cardiac death. The test involves running on a treadmill or bicycling while an electrocardiogram is continuously monitored. In some cases, a radioactive tracer such as thallium or sestamibi is used to identify the particular regions in the heart that are not getting enough blood.

Exercise testing provides information about the effects of coronary heart disease on the heart's ability to function at different levels of exertion. Advantages of this test are that it is noninvasive and particularly useful for identifying the small percentage of people with stable angina who have a high risk of heart attack and death from their coronary heart disease.

Angiography — Angiography (also known as cardiac catheterization) involves passing a small catheter into the coronary arteries. Dye is injected into the artery and an X-ray image is used to show the outline of any blockages. Angiography is usually recommended for people who are considered to have "high-risk" disease based upon the results of other tests, such as the exercise tests described above. The results of angiography can then help determine if stent placement or bypass surgery is a better choice.

Age — Interventional treatments have more risks in older people. For example, the risk of dying from bypass surgery is about three times greater for people who are 79 years or older compared to people who are 50 years of age.

On the other hand, older people often have the most to gain from bypass surgery; in older patients (>75 years of age), bypass surgery has a greater life-prolonging benefit relative to medical treatment. Therefore, advancing age does not necessarily rule out stent placement or bypass surgery as treatment options.

Severity of angina — People who have angina are usually managed with medical treatment initially unless testing indicates that the person could have severe disease. If medical treatment does not significantly improve symptoms of angina or if the person cannot tolerate medical treatment, angiography followed by stent placement or coronary artery bypass graft surgery may be recommended.

Stenting has not been shown to prolong life compared with medical therapy. It is used principally to improve angina symptoms when optimal medication therapy has failed. (See "Patient education: Stenting for the heart (Beyond the Basics)".)

Advanced heart disease — Heart disease may lead to poor pumping function of the left ventricle (the heart chamber that pumps blood to the body), and it may even lead to a serious condition called heart failure. (See "Patient education: Heart failure (Beyond the Basics)".)

People with these advanced types of heart disease may benefit more from interventional treatments, primarily bypass surgery, than from medical treatment. In fact, interventional treatment may even reverse abnormal function of the left ventricle in some cases. However, interventional procedures are associated with greater risks in people with advanced heart disease. (See "Patient education: Heart failure (Beyond the Basics)".)

Narrowing of coronary arteries — Interventional treatment is usually more beneficial than medical treatment when the coronary arteries are severely narrowed, when many coronary arteries are narrowed, and when the left main coronary artery (the artery that supplies blood to the left side of the heart) is narrowed. These early patterns of arterial narrowing often predict how severe heart damage would be if a heart attack occurs.

People who have three narrowed coronary arteries or who have narrowing of the left main coronary artery are usually advised to undergo interventional treatment, most often bypass surgery.

People who have two narrowed coronary arteries are usually advised to have interventional treatment.

People who have only one narrowed coronary artery are advised to use medical treatment. If angina persists with medical treatment, then angioplasty, with or without a stent, or coronary bypass graft surgery may be recommended.

Peripheral artery disease — Peripheral artery disease refers to narrowing of arteries in parts of the body other than the heart. For example, arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs or to the brain may be narrowed. Studies suggest that people with peripheral vascular disease have greater risks from angioplasty and bypass surgery, and medical treatment may therefore be a better choice. (See "Patient education: Peripheral artery disease and claudication (Beyond the Basics)".)


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Coronary heart disease (The Basics)
Patient education: Chest pain (The Basics)
Patient education: Medicines after a heart attack (The Basics)
Patient education: Cardiac catheterization (The Basics)
Patient education: Medicines for angina (chest pain) (The Basics)
Patient education: Stenting for the heart (The Basics)
Patient education: Treatment choices for angina (chest pain) (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Medications for angina (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Stenting for the heart (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Heart failure (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Peripheral artery disease and claudication (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Early cardiac complications of coronary artery bypass graft surgery
Early noncardiac complications of coronary artery bypass graft surgery
Coronary artery bypass graft surgery: Causes and rates of graft failure
Stable ischemic heart disease: Indications for revascularization
Periprocedural complications of percutaneous coronary intervention

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


American Heart Association



Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Mon Mar 21 00:00:00 GMT+00:00 2016.
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