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When Should You Have a Stress Test?

Posted 10/9/2017 by UHBlog

Are you experiencing shortness of breath or erratic heart beart? Talk to us about how a stress test can uncover what your symptoms mean.

When Should You Have a Stress Test?

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. One of the reasons why it's so fatal is because people often ignore the signs, says cardiologist Claire Sullivan, MD.

Instead, you might think that the reason you’re winded or having heart palpitations or chest pains is because you are out of shape or pulled a muscle. But these are also signs that your heart may not be getting enough oxygen.

“For that reason, if you have chest pain or significant shortness of breath when you walk, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting a stress test,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Stress tests measure blood flow to your heart muscle under stress. That’s why many stress tests take place on a treadmill. During treadmill tests, you start on a treadmill, which gets progressively faster and steeper.

“Most people don’t have symptoms when they’re at rest,” Dr. Sullivan says. “The goal (of a stress test) is to get your heart pumping to its maximal capacity.”

All the while, doctors are measuring your heart rate and blood pressure, and looking for electrical changes in the heart. If you're physically limited – and can’t get on a treadmill – drugs can be administered to stress the heart instead.

“I call it chemical exercise,” Dr. Sullivan says. “The goal in both instances is to see if there are areas of the heart that are starving for oxygen.”

According to Dr. Sullivan, a stress test is a reliable way to find out whether the arteries are 70 percent narrowed or more. A stress test is typically recommended if you’re:

  • Experiencing chest pain or significant shortness of breath when you walk
  • Feeling faint or having a rapid heartbeat during exercise
  • Scheduling an operation and your doctor wants to assess the strength of your heart
  • Returning to exercise after a heart attack or a diagnosis of coronary heart disease and your doctor is determining whether your heart is strong enough to handle exercise

While stress tests are helpful in identifying large blockages, they can't predict the likelihood of a heart attack – which are often brought on by smaller blockages that rupture and form clots. But having a negative result on a stress test “is a reassuring sign to patients – and physicians – that they can exert themselves without having to think that there is anything bad going on with their heart,” Dr. Sullivan says.

If a stress test comes back positive or abnormal, your doctor will likely refer you to a cardiologist for further testing, Dr. Sullivan says.

Claire Sullivan, MD is a cardiologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can Request an Appointment with any healthcare provider online.

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