When Do You Need a Cardiac Stress Test?

The results of a cardiac stress test can give valuable information to your doctor about the condition of your heart and coronary arteries. However, not everyone needs a stress test. Your doctor may want to prescribe a cardiac stress test if you experience the following conditions:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms of limited blood flow to your heart
  • A recent heart attack
  • A recent heart procedure
  • Feeling faint or fluttering heartbeat during exercise
  • Symptoms of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Diabetes

An exercise stress test can indicate whether your condition is heart-related versus lung-related or out of shape, such as due to lack of regular exercise.

What to Expect With an Exercise Stress Test

In a stress test, you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike that makes your heart work progressively harder while an electrocardiogram (EKG) monitors your heart’s electrical rhythms. The EKG connects to you with electrodes on small sticky patches attached to your skin. The doctor also measures your blood pressure and monitors whether you have symptoms like chest discomfort or fatigue. Abnormalities or worsening physical symptoms could point to coronary artery disease: fatty deposits that reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. The stress test gets progressively harder, yet you can stop if you feel that the exercise is too much.

Exercise stress testing: What does it tell you?

An exercise stress test is designed to find out if one or more of the coronary arteries feeding the heart contain fatty deposits that block a blood vessel 70 percent or more. Additional testing is often required to confirm the test result.

Normal Result

A normal stress test result means that you don’t have reduced blood flow to your heart at rest, but may have limited blood flow during intense exercise. You could still have a heart attack if a small blockage ruptures and forms a clot. Your doctor may want to do further testing if you have other risk factors for heart disease that raise concern. And/or, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes and medication.

Abnormal Result

An abnormal result indicates that you may have significant coronary heart disease, which is 70 percent or greater artery blockage. Your doctor may order additional tests to confirm a diagnosis or rule out the abnormal result as a false alarm.

After a stress test, if certain symptoms persist, such as shortness of breath and fatigue, patients should see a cardiologist for further assessment. The good news is that many people live with coronary artery disease due to the ability to diagnose early and the availability of treatment options.

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