- A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, gathers information about how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster than usual, an exercise stress test can reveal problems within your heart that might not be noticeable otherwise.
- An exercise stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while your heart rhythm, blood pressure, and breathing are monitored.
- You may be asked not to eat, drink, or smoke for 2 hours or more before an exercise stress test. Ask your doctor if you should avoid caffeine or certain medications the day before the test, because they can interfere with certain stress tests. Otherwise, you can take your medications as usual.
- If you use an inhaler for asthma or other breathing problems, bring it with you 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 to the exercise stress test.
HOW THE TEST IS PERFORMED
- A nurse or technician places sticky patches (electrodes) — which are connected by wires to an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) machine — on your chest, legs, and arms to record your heart’s electrical signals. 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 determine how well you breathe during exercise.
- You then begin walking on the treadmill or pedaling the stationary bike slowly. As the test progresses, the speed and incline of the treadmill increases. You can use the railing on the treadmill for balance, but don’t hang on tightly, as that may skew the results of the test.On a stationary bike, the resistance increases as the test progresses, making it harder to pedal.
- 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:
- moderate to severe chest pain
- severe shortness of breath
- abnormally high or low blood pressure
- an abnormal heart rhythm
- certain changes in your electrocardiogram
- You may stop the test anytime you’re too uncomfortable to continue exercising.
- After you stop exercising, you may be asked to stand still for several seconds and then lie down for about 5 minutes with the monitors in place so that they can continue taking measurements as your heart rate and breathing return to normal.
- When your exercise stress test is complete, you may return to your normal activities for the remainder of the day.
- If the information gathered during your exercise stress test shows your heart function to be normal, you may not need any further tests.
- However, if the results are normal and your symptoms continue or become worse, your doctor may recommend that you have a nuclear stress test or another exercise stress test that includes an echocardiogram before and after exercise. These tests are more accurate and provide more information about your heart function, but they are also more expensive.
- If the results of your exercise stress test suggest coronary artery disease or reveal an arrhythmia, the information gathered during the test will be used to help your doctor develop a treatment plan. You may need additional tests and evaluations, such as a coronary angiogram, depending on the findings.
- If the purpose of your exercise stress test was to guide treatment for a heart condition, your doctor will use data from the test to establish or modify your treatment plan, as needed.
- There may be possible risks. When you meet with your doctor, please ask questions to make sure you understand why the procedure is recommended and what the potential risks are.