Doctors use cardiac catheterization to diagnose and treat heart conditions. The technique involves threading a thin tube called a catheter through an artery (usually the femoral artery in the upper thigh or groin) to the heart. Serious complications during cardiac catheterization are rare. But the procedure comes with risks of bleeding and damage to arteries.
Increasingly, cardiologists perform cardiac catheterization from an alternate site — the radial artery in the wrist — an equally effective tactic that’s linked to fewer bleeding and vascular complications, according to a review published in Circulation.
Why the wrist? After patients undergo cardiac catheterization through the femoral artery, they must remain flat on their back with their leg immobile for two to six hours to allow the artery to heal and help prevent both internal and external bleeding. Because the radial artery is smaller and closer to the skin’s surface, there’s no risk of internal bleeding, and external bleeding is easier to stop or prevent, an advantage for obese patients or those taking blood thinners.
Patients who undergo cardiac catheterization through the wrist can sit up, walk and eat immediately after the procedure — good news for people with back problems who find it difficult to lie still. A compression device is worn around the wrist for two hours. Patients must refrain from heavy lifting with the hand for a few days.
Radial cardiac catheterization most benefits patients in the highest risk groups — women, patients 75 and older and people with acute coronary syndrome. Yet doctors have been less likely to use the wrist site for these groups.
The decision to use radial versus femoral artery cardiac catheterization is largely based on the abilities and the experience of the cardiologist who’ll perform the procedure. The radial procedure is more technically challenging, and a greater number of U.S. doctors have more experience with the femoral approach — something that’s likely to change in the near future.