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What is a Stress Test?

Man Smiling Stress Test

When diagnosing heart disease, it’s important for your cardiologist to see how blood flows through your heart while you’re exercising.

That’s where stress tests come in. This category of diagnostic test can reveal problems that might arise while your heart is pumping harder and faster than it does normally.

But what exactly is a stress test, and what can you expect during the procedure?

Stress Tests: The Basics

A stress test, sometimes referred to as an exercise stress test, involves monitoring your heart rhythm, blood pressure, and breathing while you are either walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.

Stress tests are commonly used to diagnose coronary artery disease or an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia), or to help your doctor plan treatment for a heart condition you’ve been diagnosed with.

Typically, stress tests are:

  • Performed in a doctor’s office or hospital
  • Completed in an hour 
  • Non-invasive

If you’re unable to exercise, you may be given an intravenous medication to mimic exercise.

The test is generally safe since it’s done in a controlled environment. However, there is a very low risk of complications such as chest pain, collapsing, fainting, heart attack, or irregular heartbeat. Your doctor will screen you for these problems beforehand.

How Do I Prepare for a Stress Test?

Prior to the test, your doctor may have you stop taking over-the-counter and prescription medications as they could interfere with the results of the test. Do not stop taking medications unless instructed by your doctor.

You may also need to avoid eating, drinking caffeinated beverages, and smoking for a certain period of time before the test.

On the day of your stress test, wear comfortable clothing and shoes. If you use an inhaler, be sure to bring it to the test.

Before you start the test, your doctor will ask some medical- and exercise-related questions to determine the appropriate amount and type of exercise. They will also do a physical exam, take your vital signs, and listen to your heart and lungs.

Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any underlying medical conditions or are having any symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. Also let them know if you have any physical limitations caused by joint pain or arthritis.

What Happens During a Stress Test?

Once you’re ready to begin the test, electrodes (sticky patches) will be attached to your chest. Small areas of your chest may need to be shaved to help the electrodes stick properly. The electrodes are connected to an electrocardiogram machine, which records the electrical signals that make your heart beat.

You will also wear a blood pressure monitor on your arm and a pulse monitor on your finger. In some cases, your doctor may want you to breathe into a tube while you’re exercising.

You will begin by exercising slowly and working up to a predetermined target heart rate or until you show symptoms that indicate you cannot continue, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, abnormal blood pressure, dizziness, abnormal heart rhythm, or dizziness.

Once you have spent a certain amount of time exercising, usually about 10-15 minutes, the intensity of the exercise will be slowly decreased. After the test, your doctor will continue to monitor your heart rhythm and breathing until both return to normal. Once the test is complete, you should be able to return to normal activities.

What Happens After a Stress Test?

Your doctor will review all of the information gathered during the test to determine the results. There are several possible outcomes of a stress test:

  • If your heart function appears to be normal, you may not require any further testing.
  • If your results are normal but you continue to have symptoms or your symptoms get worse, your doctor may order a different kind of stress test.
  • If your results are abnormal, your doctor can use the information gathered from the stress test to develop a treatment plan or order additional tests.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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