Chelation therapy — long a treatment for mercury and lead poisoning — isn't a proven treatment for heart disease, and it can be dangerous when used as a heart disease treatment. Even so, some doctors and alternative medicine practitioners have used chelation therapy to treat heart disease and stroke.

The theory behind using chelation therapy for heart disease is that the medicine used in the treatment binds to the calcium that's in fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries. Once the medicine binds to the calcium, the plaques are swept away as the medicine moves through your bloodstream.

The safety and effectiveness of chelation therapy for heart disease can't be determined, even after the results of the largest study conducted to date, the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Neither the American Heart Association nor the American College of Cardiology recommends chelation therapy as a treatment for heart disease, and the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved chelation therapy for use as a heart disease treatment.

In chelation therapy, a dose of a medication called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is delivered through an intravenous (IV) line. This medication seeks out and binds to minerals in your bloodstream. Once the medication binds to the minerals, it creates a compound that leaves your body in your urine.

Chelation therapy is a proven treatment for lead or mercury poisoning. Some doctors think that chelation therapy could begin to reverse heart disease by binding to the calcium in the plaques clogging your arteries and sweeping it away. No study has proved that this process actually works.

Some doctors are concerned about the safety of chelation therapy as a treatment for heart disease. A burning sensation at the injection site is the most common side effect. Less common but more serious potential side effects of chelation therapy include:

  • Fever
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to create new blood cells
  • Abnormally low blood-calcium levels (hypocalcemia)

Keep in mind that in chelation therapy, the medication used binds not only to metals and calcium in your blood but also to minerals that are an important part of your diet. Following chelation therapy, you'll be given vitamin supplements that contain large amounts of the minerals that chelation therapy removes from your body. Rare complications of chelation therapy include permanent kidney damage or failure. Deaths have occurred in some chelation studies.

Because of the known risks and unknown benefits of chelation therapy, talk to your doctor before trying it as a heart disease treatment.

Before you choose chelation therapy for heart disease, talk to your doctor about all the risks involved in the procedure.

After weighing the risks, if you decide to have chelation therapy, there are no special preparations necessary. You'll need to sit in a chair for several hours to receive chelation therapy, so dress in comfortable clothing for your visit.

Chelation therapy is done during the course of five to 30 treatments with a doctor or alternative medicine practitioner. During each treatment, you sit in a chair and an IV line is inserted in your hand or arm. A liquid solution is given to you through the IV line. Each treatment usually takes several hours. You may feel a temporary stinging or burning sensation at the injection site.

After the procedure

After the procedure, you can go about your daily activities. You'll be able to drive yourself home, eat your usual diet and do chores normally. You may notice some swelling around your ankles or that you need to urinate more than usual. Both result from the amount of fluid that's in the solution injected during chelation therapy.

Because the solution used in chelation therapy also binds to vitamins and minerals in your bloodstream, you'll need to take supplements after your procedure to replace them. You'll take the pills until you've finished your series of chelation treatments. Because the supplements are strong, carefully follow the instructions for taking them.

It's unclear whether chelation therapy can prevent or treat heart disease.

Feb. 27, 2013