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WellSpan cardiologists using sound waves to unblock arteries 

WellSpan cardiologists using sound waves to unblock arteries

WellSpan cardiologists now can open up severely calcified heart blockages with a new tool: sound waves. 

Called Shockwave, the technology is designed to treat those who have cement-like, difficult-to-open blockages in their heart's arteries, a condition often referred to as "hardening of the arteries," a particularly accurate description for these patients. 

WellSpan cardiologists use a special balloon for the procedure, guiding it to the blockage, where it emits ultrasonic frequencies that crush the blockage and safely push the pulverized pieces out of the way. Once the artery is open, cardiologists can place a stent, a tiny tube that acts like a scaffolding, in the artery to hold it open. 

"This is a new tool in our toolbox," says WellSpan cardiologist Dr. Rhian Davies, an interventional cardiologist who uses the treatment at WellSpan York Hospital, which has done more than 500 Shockwave treatments within the past year and a half. "It's a way to give excellent results in patients and make their stents last longer." 

In addition to employing it at WellSpan York Hospital, cardiologists use Shockwave at WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital and WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital. The technology also is planned to be put into use at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital and WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital in October. The procedures are done in the cardiac catheterization labs at the hospitals. 

"We are looking forward to having this new technique to help our patients at Ephrata," said Dr. Julian Esteban, an interventional cardiologist at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. "We know this will provide them with excellent results so they can live their best lives." 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The type of heart disease treated by Shockwave, coronary artery disease, is the most common kind of heart disease, killing almost 383,000 patients in the U.S. in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. About 20 percent of those deaths occur in adults less than 65 years old. 

Also known as intravascular lithotripsy, the treatment works on the same principles as lithotripsy used in the kidneys to break up kidney stones. 

Patients who are prone to heavily calcified, hardened blockages includes people with diabetes, high cholesterol, and smokers. As we age, our risk of calcium development within our coronary arteries significantly increases, Davies said. In fact, after the age of 70, men have a 90% chance of calcified arteries and women have more than a 60% chance. 

Cardiologists also can use a tiny drill to grind away and break up blockages – sometimes compared to a "Roto-Rooter" drill used to clean out pipes in homes. That tiny drill can be used in concert with Shockwave, giving cardiologists an additional method to open up stubborn blockages. 

Shockwave can sometimes give new hope to patients who have been turned down for bypass surgery due to their heavily calcified arteries. It safely unblocks the artery while minimizing risks. 

"If you have a lot of calcium, it's harder to do the bypass, and you can be a less than ideal candidate for surgery," Davies says. "This gives us an opportunity to help patients who previously were told they could not have procedures done. We can open their arteries and they don't have to have surgery." 

WellSpan vascular surgeons also are using Shockwave to break up heavily calcified blockages in leg arteries in Chambersburg. 

To learn more about leading-edge cardiology treatments, close to home, go here.