Putting Squeeze On Heart Disease

A new, non-invasive, outpatient approach to treating serious heart disease is decidedly LOW-tech.

It's called "enhanced external counter-propulsion," or EECP, for short.

It involves wrapping blood pressure cuffs are put around the legs to push blood back up to the heart in time with a person's heartbeat.

Doctors say it results in reduced pain and an improved quality of life for patients, without needles, surgery or hospital stays.

EECP expert Dr. Debra Braverman, of the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia is on the forefront of this therapy.

As The Early Show continued it weeklong series "Early Keeps the Beat" Wednesday, Braverman said it EECP is gaining in popularity.

EECP is designed to treat angina, which Braverman explained is an umbrella term for symptoms of coronary artery disease, when the heart isn't receiving enough blood and so, not enough oxygen. Blood vessels that carry oxygen to the heart become narrowed or blocked. Angina may feel like chest pain or pressure, shortness of breathe, fatigue, or nausea. It's different for each patient.

Generally, she says, EECP involves 35 hours of treatment over a seven-week period.

EECP works, Braverman says, by improving blood vessel function. One study last year, and one coming out this March, found that EECP created new cells to line the blood vessels. It can heal the lining of the blood vessels. In pigs, we can see the blood vessels becoming normal. It's really "an astounding finding," Braverman told CBS News. "It works like a passive form of exercise. We're exercising your circulation for you. Patients love that!"

Many EECP patients have already had surgery such as stent implantation or bypass, and many take medications. EECP is for people who can't have more surgery, or don't want surgery and are still restricted by their heart disease. It's used in chronic, stable patients, not in emergencies. Many people want to delay surgery to see if this non-invasive therapy will work. It's not suited for people with a leaky aortic valve, blood clots in the legs, or blood pressure that's out of control.

EECP isn't a cure, Braverman pointed out, and it's not for everyone, but people do say they take less medicine with it, have more energy, and rely less on drugs such as nitroglycerin.

EECP isn't a once-in-a-lifetime treatment, she added. Heart disease is chronic, and symptoms can return.