I hear this comment from patients all the time:
“They told me that I had only mild blockages and so I had nothing to worry about.”
That’s one big lie.
I guess I shouldn’t call it a lie. Is it a lie when it comes from ignorance, arrogance, laziness, or greed?
“Mild coronary disease” is usually a label applied to coronary atherosclerotic plaque that is insufficient to block flow. Thus, having a few 20%, 30%, or 40% blockages would be labeled “mild.” No stents are (usually) implanted, no bypass surgery performed, and symptoms should not be attributable to the blockages. Thus, “mild.”
The problem is that “mild” blockages are no less likely to rupture, the eruptive process that resembles a little volcano spewing lava. Except it’s not lava, but the internal contents of atherosclerotic plaque. When these internal contents of plaque gain contact with blood, the coagulation process is set in motion and the artery both clots and constricts. Chest pains and heart attack result.
So, the essential point is not necessarily the amount of blood flow through the artery, but the presence of coronary atherosclerotic plaque. Just having plaque–any amount of plaque–sets the stage to permit plaque rupture.
One thing is clear: The more plaque you have, the greater the risk for rupture. But the quantity of plaque cannot be measured by the “percent blockage.” It is measured by the lengthwise extent of plaque, as well as the depth of plaque within the wall. Neither of these risk features for plaque rupture can be gauged by percent blockage.
Coronary atherosclerosis is a diffuse process that involves much of the length of the artery. It is therefore folly to believe that a 15 mm long stent has addressed the disease. This is no more a solution than to replace the faucet in your kitchen in a house with rotting pipes from the basement up.
The message: ANY amount of coronary plaque is reason to engage in a program of prevention–prevention of plaque rupture, prevention of further plaque growth, perhaps even regression (reversal). It is NOT a reason to be complacent and buy into the myth of “mild” coronary disease, the misguided notion that arises from ill-conceived procedural heart disease solutions.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD
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