A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, shows how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within your heart.
A stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored. Or you’ll receive a drug that mimics the effects of exercise.
Your doctor may recommend a stress test if you have signs or symptoms of coronary artery disease or an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). The test may also guide treatment decisions, measure the effectiveness of treatment or determine the severity if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition.
A nurse or technician will place sticky patches (electrodes) on your chest, legs and arms. Some areas may need to be shaved to help them stick. The electrodes have wires connected to an electrocardiogram machine, which records the electrical signals that trigger your heartbeats. A cuff on your arm checks your blood pressure during the test. You may be asked to breathe into a tube during the test to show how well you're able to breathe during exercise.
If you're not exercising, your doctor will inject the drug into your IV that increases blood flow to your heart. You might feel flushed or short of breath, just as you would if you were exercising. You might get a headache.
You'll probably exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike, starting slowly. As the test progresses, the exercise gets more difficult. You can use the railing on the treadmill for balance. Don't hang on tightly, as this may skew the results.
You continue exercising until your heart rate has reached a set target or until you develop symptoms that don't allow you to continue. These signs and symptoms may include:
You and your doctor will discuss your safe limits for exercise. You may stop the test anytime you're too uncomfortable to continue exercising.
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 all of your prescription and over-the-counter medications before the test, because they might interfere with certain stress tests.
If you use an inhaler for asthma or other breathing problems, bring it to the test. Make sure your doctor and the health care team member monitoring your stress test know that you use an inhaler.
Wear or bring comfortable clothes and walking shoes. If you're having a nuclear stress test, don't apply oil, lotion or cream to your skin that day.
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