The great danger with this type of calcified plaque is that the thin wall surrounding the goo bursts, or breaks down. This ‘goo exposure’ sends a hugely powerful message to the blood-clotting system, and results in a blood clot (also called a thrombus) forming over the burst plaque.
If the blood clot is big enough then it completely blocks the blood supply to whatever organ that particular artery was supplying:If that organ happens to be the heart, then the heart muscle downstream will become starved of oxygen.
It may then ‘infarct’ (‘infarction’ means the localised necrosis – or cell death – that results from obstruction to the blood supply). In medical speak, this is a myocardial (heart muscle) infarction, often shortened to an MI.
In layperson speak, this is a heart attack. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of heart attacks are fatal, and people mostly die in the first hour. For those who survive the first hour, though, a myriad of medical interventions have now been developed. Among the earlier developments were clot-busting drugs, designed to break down the clot that is blocking the artery.
These are still widely used, and are pretty effective: assuming you managed to ‘bust’ the clot before the heart muscle became too badly damaged.That said, the humble blood-thinning aspirin can be almost as good, at about one-millionth of the cost. However, cardiologists now have much better toys to play with, and the latest type of treatment for an acute heart attack employs a long, thin catheter, which is inserted into an artery in the groin. Under X-ray guidance, this is then fed up to the heart, directed into the artery that is blocked and then stuck through the clot. A balloon is then inflated, opening up the artery even further.
Nowadays, a small metal framework known as a stent is wrapped round the balloon, and this folds out into a rigid ‘support’ that sits where the clot was, keeping the artery open. The entire procedure is known as angioplasty. It’s all exceedingly clever, and horribly expensive.