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Cardiac Stress Test

A cardiac stress test shows how your heart works when it's made to pump harder and faster, such as through exercise or with medication that mimics the effects of exercise.

Medication: If the stress test is done with medication, a health provider will deliver it to you through an IV line. The medication will take 15-20 minutes to stimulate the heart. It may cause effects similar to those that occur while exercising, such as flushing or shortness of breath.

Nuclear stress test: The nuclear stress test uses a small, safe amount of radioactive substance that your doctor or nurse will inject into you. Your doctor will use a special camera that produces pictures of light rays released from the substance in your body. These pictures are taken at rest and after exercise. By examining the pictures, your doctor will be able to spot areas of your heart that aren’t getting enough blood. The nuclear stress test could last up to four hours to allow enough time for the radioactive substance to flow through your body.

Who is eligible for a cardiac stress test?

A cardiac stress test that does not involve exercise may help people with reduced mobility who cannot walk or run on a treadmill.

What conditions can be diagnosed by a cardiac stress test?

A cardiac stress test can help diagnose various heart conditions like:

  • Coronary artery disease:Your coronary arteries are the major blood vessels that supply your heart with blood, oxygen, and nutrients. Coronary artery disease develops when these arteries become damaged or diseased—usually due to a buildup of deposits containing cholesterol and other substances (plaques).

  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats): Heart arrhythmias occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heart rhythm don't function properly, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slowly, or irregularly.

How do I prepare for a cardiac stress test?

  • You may be asked not to eat, drink or smoke for a period of time before a stress test. You may need to avoid caffeine the day before and the day of the test.

  • Ask your doctor if it's safe for you to continue taking any medications before the test.

  • If you use an inhaler for asthma or other breathing problems, bring it to the test. Make sure your doctor knows that you use an inhaler.

What should I expect during my cardiac stress test?

Your doctor will ask you some questions about your medical history and how often and strenuously you exercise, if at all. Your doctor will also listen to your heart and lungs for any abnormalities.

If your cardiac stress test method is medication, you'll receive a drug through an IV. It will increase your heart rate as if you are exercising. You might feel flushed or short of breath. You might get a brief headache.

If your test does involve exercise, you may continue moving until your heart rate has reached a certain level or until you develop symptoms that don't allow you to continue. Signs and symptoms that may stop the test include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Dizziness.
  • An abnormal heart rhythm.
  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Moderate to severe chest pain.
  • Abnormally high or low blood pressure.
  • Certain changes in your electrocardiogram.

You and your doctor will discuss your safe limits for exercise. You may stop the test anytime. You may be asked to rest for a period of time with the monitors in place. Your doctor can watch for any abnormalities as your heart rate and breathing return to normal.

When your cardiac stress test is complete, you may return to your normal activities unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Why choose Presbyterian for a cardiac stress test?

Presbyterian’s Heart and Vascular team has many different options to help you manage your heart condition. The team performs various diagnostic tests and procedures to help form an accurate diagnosis and create individualized treatment plans for your heart health needs. Depending on the type of heart condition you have and its underlying cause, the team can recommend a wide variety of treatment options, including lifestyle modifications, medications, and procedures. Our cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons work closely together for cases in which surgery is the best treatment option. We also offer a customized cardiac rehabilitation program at our Healthplex, where clinically appropriate, which can improve your endurance and exercise tolerance, as well as improve heart-related symptoms. Your cardiologist will work with the rehabilitation team to create a plan that will be tailored to your individual health needs.