Removing plaque from a blood vessel

Understanding Atherosclerosis Atherectomy

What is it?

An atherectomy is a procedure that utilizes a catheter with a sharp blade on the end to remove plaque from a blood vessel. The catheter is inserted into the artery through a small puncture in the artery, and it is performed under local anesthesia.

The catheter is designed to collect the removed plaque in a chamber in the tip, which allows removal of the plaque as the device is removed from the artery. The process can be repeated at the time the treatment is performed to remove a significant amount of disease from the artery, thus eliminating a blockage from atherosclerotic disease.

You may need this atherectomy procedure if your arteries become too narrowed or blocked from plaque inside the artery walls. If arteries are blocked, blood cannot get through to nourish the tissues, causing the muscles of the lower extremities to cramp and lose strength.

An atherectomy is especially helpful for treating blockages in arteries that occur around branches or in vessels that are not easily treated with stents.

How is it done?

You are given local anesthesia with a mild sedative through an IV to help you relax. Your blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen level are monitored throughout the procedure.

After you are given a medication to numb the area, a thin tube called a sheath is inserted. Then a longer and thinner tube called a catheter is slid into the sheath. The catheter is equipped with a sharp blade at its tip and is advanced through your artery until it reaches the area of narrowing.

Your surgeon will then scrape away the plaque with the catheter blade. The plaque will be collected in a chamber in the tip of the catheter for removal. The surgeon may need to pass the catheter multiple times in order to remove a significant amount of atherosclerosis.

The procedure itself generally takes two hours, but the preparation and recovery time add several hours. Following the procedure, you will need to lie flat for three to six hours. The surgery may require a minimum hospital stay of one to two days.


Your doctor will discuss the risks of these procedures with you. Atherectomy usually has no complications, but as with any surgery, there is a risk of complications. Some of the risks include the following:

  • Infection
  • Allergic reaction to medications
  • Bleeding at site of incision
  • Embolization (the dislodgement of debris that blocks the arteries in the lower part of the leg)
  • Perforation of the artery
  • Re-blockage of the artery (restenosis)

Technology and expertise at Lee Health

Lee Health have some of the most advanced cardiac catheterization labs in the region. We offer cardiac catherizations at three locations: HealthPark Medical Center and Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, and Cape Coral Hospital in Cape Coral.

Our doctors are all fellowship trained, the highest level of training available.

The at Lee Health are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We offer many procedures that are not available anywhere else in the region.

Lee Health has doctors who perform a high volume of many procedures. Research shows that those hospitals which perform the highest volume of a procedure generally have the best outcomes.

View this topic in our Health Encyclopedia.

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