If you exhibit any symptoms of cardiac disease, such as chest pain and/or shortness of breath, your doctor may order a stress test to assess how your heart functions under physical strain, such as exercise. The test’s results relay information about the underlying cause(s) of your symptoms so he can administer prompt and proper treatment.
A stress test also allows the doctor to evaluate the effectiveness of your current cardiac treatment or learn if you can return to exercising after a heart attack.
At Northwest Houston Heart Center, cardiologists Dr. A. Adnan Aslam and Dr. Roy Norman use stress tests to help them diagnose and treat your heart condition before it becomes a major health problem. Here’s what they want you to know about the different types of tests and what you can expect when you’re having one.
What does a stress test tell your doctor?
A stress test allows your doctor to determine how well your heart handles its workload. Because the test pushes the heart to work harder than normal, it needs to pump more blood to keep pace with the activity. If it can’t keep up, the results will show a lack of blood supply through the arteries leading to the heart. The results also help your doctor understand the kind and level of physical activity that’s right for you.
Doctors order stress tests to learn:
- If you have an irregular heart rate (pulse)
- If your heart gets enough blood during exercise
- If symptoms are related to your heart
- About any abnormalities in your blood pressure
- About any changes in the heart’s rhythm (arrhythmias)
- About any abnormal electrical activity in your heart (important for effective contractions)
- If your current heart-related medications are effective
- If you need further tests to detect narrowed arteries
Developing chest pain or shortness of breath during the test may indicate you have carotid artery disease (CAD), a blockage in the arteries that feed the brain. The doctor will order a carotid ultrasound or other, similar, test to get more data.
It’s interesting to note that a 2013 study presented at that year’s American Thoracic Society conference suggested stress tests can also identify people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a disorder where you temporarily but repetitively stop breathing while you’re asleep. As OSA can impact the heart, such a test might flag those most at risk of experiencing life-threatening complications.
The types of stress tests
There are three primary types of stress tests.
1. Exercise stress test
This is by far the most common type of stress test. It’s sometimes called a treadmill stress test or a stress EKG. It uses exercise to stress the heart and increase its rate. The doctor places electrodes on your body before you start so he can monitor your heart’s electrical activity during the test.
You can expect to spend about 15-20 minutes either walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. You start slowly, and the doctor increases the speed until you reach a predetermined peak heart rate or until you develop symptoms and need to stop. During the entire test, he monitors your blood pressure, pulse, and the heart’s electrical activity.
2. Medication stress test
If you’re unable to exercise, the doctor may use medication to increase your heart rate.
3. Nuclear/PET stress test
Also called a radionuclide scan, the nuclear test uses a tracer dye injected into your bloodstream to highlight the heart and blood flow on a positive emission tomography (PET) scan given following a treadmill/bike test. For comparison, you have a second PET scan when your heart is at rest.
PET scans are noninvasive and not at all painful.
The doctors at Northwest Houston Cardiac Center consider this combination the gold standard of stress tests, as the PET scan is an incredibly advanced and accurate diagnostic tool for coronary artery disease.
Northwest Houston is one of only a few places in the Houston area with a dedicated cardiac PET scanner, and it’s provided this service for over 10 years. In fact, Dr. Aslam is certified by the Certification Board of Nuclear Cardiology, and the center’s PET scan facility is an Accredited Facility by Intersocietal Accreditation Commission.
The cardiac PET scan images can reveal:
- Damaged muscles, including those that need immediate treatment and those that don’t
- Areas that don’t get enough blood
- Blocked arteries (coronary artery disease)
- Scarred heart tissue from previous heart attack
- Risk of sustaining a heart attack
From these results, the doctor can develop a detailed, personalized treatment plan.
If you’re experiencing cardiac symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath, it’s time to come into one of Northwest Houston Cardiac Center’s offices in Tomball, Cypress, Magnolia, or The Woodlands, Texas, for an evaluation and stress test. Give any of our offices a call to book your appointment, or schedule online today.