A noninvasive treatment for strengthening your heart

In 2009, the day after Mother's Day, Cindy Conway suffered a massive heart attack and underwent surgery and seven bypasses at the Indiana Heart Hospital. "I didn't know I was sick before, just tired," the 59-year-old Lapel resident says. And, in July 2009, chronic heart failure (CHF) was added to her preexisting health issues of fibromyalgia, diabetes, neuropathy in her feet and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Some in similar situations might succumb to illness and lead a slower-paced life. Instead, Conway’s cardiologist informed her of a new treatment happening right in Anderson. "I saw Dr. (Preetham) Jetty and he brought up external counterpulsation (ECP) and asked if I was willing to try because he thought I could benefit from it," says Conway.

External counterpulsation, know as ECP, is a non-invasive technique for improving circulation within the heart muscle for patients who suffer from stable angina pectoris (chest pain). It is also used to improve cardiac function in some patients, such as Conway, with CHF, a condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood effectively to the rest of the body.

Tammy Scarberry, LPN, ECP clinician at Community Hospital Anderson, says the treatment is most often used if interventions aren’t an option or have failed to relieve a patient’s symptoms. "In spite of interventions, these people continue to have chest pain, fatigue and just want to do daily activities—not run a marathon—without daily angina symptoms."

Unlike procedures such as coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty, ECP treatment is administered on an outpatient basis and carries little or no risk. Treatment is usually provided in 35 one-hour sessions, 5 days a week for 7 weeks. "It's a commitment, like a job," says Conway. "You can skip, but you're only hurting yourself."

The device works to improve circulation to the heart muscle, increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart and reducing the heart’s workload. "ECP can actually help to build new pathways around blocked arteries in the heart by expanding networks of tiny collateral blood vessels that facilitate blood flow to the heart muscle," explains Scarberry.

ECP treatment is a simple and comfortable procedure. The patient relaxes on a comfortably padded mattress while the calves, thighs and buttocks are wrapped with pneumatic cuffs, similar to blood pressure cuffs. Hoses connect the cuffs to an air pressure/vacuum pump enclosed within the bed base. The patient will feel the sensation of a strong "hug" moving upward from the calves to the thighs to the buttocks as the cuffs inflate and deflate. Each cycle is electronically synchronized with individual heartbeats.

Conway's commitment to the program paid off. "Every week I felt better," she says. "It (ECP) brought color back to my face, I don’t need nitroglycerin, and I have more energy for the first time in 19 months. I used to use my bike as a coat hanger and now I don’t do that anymore—I have the energy to use it! I was told I would continue to improve and have.”

ECP began exclusively in Madison County at Community Anderson in May 2010. Because the treatment has proven to be highly effective and costs significantly less than surgery, Medicare approved ECP as a reimbursable treatment for angina. A physician’s referral is needed, so ask your doctor if you might benefit from ECP.