A lot of us are familiar with or have heard about stents used to open up blocked arteries. But did you know that stents can also be used to open up blocked airways?
The respiratory tract is made of hollow tubes and sacs that transport oxygen from our nose or mouth into our lungs where the exchange of gases takes place. If any part of the respiratory tract is blocked or narrowed, the whole process of breathing is affected. There are a number of respiratory conditions that can cause obstruction or narrowing of the airways such as lung cancer and tuberculosis.
For normal breathing to be reinstated, the airways need to be reopened or recanalized. This is where airway stents come in. Airway stents are designed to keep the airway tubes open. It functions much like the stents used to keep blood vessels open so blood can flow freely. There are a number of characteristics necessary in an airway stent, these are:
Airway stents can be made of different materials such as silicone and expendable metal mesh.
Airway stents can be permanent or temporary and are inserted using the help of a bronchoscope, which is a long, thin tube that has a light and camera attached at one end.
There are instances where the airway is completely blocked, and a bronchoscope is unable to go through. When this happens, a balloon bronchoscopy is used to open the airways by inflating the balloon at the site of obstruction. Once the airway is opened, the balloon is deflated and removed, and the stent is inserted to maintain the open airways.
You may feel a bit groggy after the procedure, so you will be monitored for a few hours to ensure that you recover well. A chest x-ray might be performed after the bronchoscopy to ensure that no damage was done to your lungs and to ensure that the airway stents were placed properly.
Your throat might still feel numb from the numbing medicine so you will not be allowed to eat or drink until you recover. Your respiratory specialist will advise you on when you may return to your normal activities and diet.
Airway stents are required when there are narrowed or obstructed airways. Airways become narrowed due to the following reasons:
Before the procedure, you must avoid eating and drinking for 4 hours and you may be required to stop certain medications such as blood thinners and aspirin. Either a sedative or general anaesthesia may be used during the procedure, depending on your preference and advice of your respiratory specialist.
There are minimal risks involved in placing or removing an airway stent, however, if they do occur, this is what to look out for:
Airway stents can remain in the lungs for months to years. When placed for cancer, they can be removed in few months` time after the cancer has shrunk from chemotherapy etc