What You Should Know About Stress Tests

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Stress testing is a useful tool that has been performed safely for decades to help your doctor determine if any symptoms you’re having could be related to your heart.

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What is a stress test?

A stress test is a procedure given by a doctor or trained technician in which you are asked to exercise (most commonly by walking on a treadmill) while having your EKG (electrocardiogram), blood pressure and symptoms monitored.

As you exercise, the heart requires more oxygen. Because oxygen is carried by the blood, if there are significant blockages in the blood vessels of the heart, more blood and oxygen cannot be delivered to the heart muscle. Changes in the EKG or blood pressure as well as symptoms such as chest pain may develop during the stress test.

When and why are stress test used?

Stress testing is used to determine if you have significant blockages in the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle. Your doctor will look for symptoms that they feel may be cardiac related. The common symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath.

Stress testing is not indicated in asymptomatic patients with active lifestyles just to screen for heart disease. It may be used in those with risk factors for heart disease who are very inactive but want to begin an exercise program or may be involved in a high-risk profession.

What can I expect during the test?

If you have no problems walking, you will have an EKG monitor and blood pressure cuff placed on you, and you will be asked to walk on a treadmill. The treadmill will gradually increase in speed and incline while a provider monitors your symptoms and vital signs. You will be asked to give your best effort because the further you go, the more information about your cardiac status can be gathered.

If you have trouble walking, there are alternative methods to performing a stress test. This includes administering short-acting drugs that will increase the heart rate to simulate exercise. Also, if you have abnormal EKG’s, your doctor may add an imaging modality to your test that could include an ultrasound or nuclear scan to take pictures of your heart, which increases the accuracy of the test. These are all non-invasive tests that require no sedation.

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