Fast Facts About Cardiac Stress Tests

Monitoring your heart while you exercise is safe and can give your doctors important information. 

A stress test is a way to detect heart disease while the body is in motion.

“We have several non-invasive tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECT) or echocardiogram, to help detect coronary artery disease as well as heart disease,” explains Sharan Mahal, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. “Those tests are done when the patient is sitting or lying down. However, some people are not symptomatic until they are exercising.”

Sharan Mahal, MD
Sharan Mahal, MD

Think of the heart as an engine, he suggests. “You can only get so much information when the engine is at rest; to really see how it’s working, you have to rev it up and take it for a drive. A stress test lets us see how the heart acts and how blood flows through the body while it’s moving.”

What Happens During An Exercise Stress Test?

  • Most stress tests are done in a cardiologist’s office. Patients should wear comfortable clothes and refrain from eating or smoking for four hours in advance.
  • The patient is connected to heart monitoring equipment, then walks on a treadmill under the supervision of a doctor or healthcare professional.
  • At first, the pace is a gentle 1.7 miles per hour. The pace will gradually be increased to a brisk walk or light jog.
  • At the same time, the incline of the treadmill is increased by two degrees every three minutes. It begins at 10 degrees and progresses to 16 degrees.
  • The patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are monitored throughout the test, which can last up to 15 minutes. The patient can stop at any time if needed.
  • After the stress test, the patient will be observed for five minutes during cooldown.

Stress Tests are Prescribed When Symptoms Exist

Unlike a colonoscopy or mammography, there’s no recommended age for a person to begin having stress tests. “People need a stress test if they’re having symptoms, usually chest pain or shortness of breath with activity, or unexplained passing out,” says Dr. Mahal. “In the absence of symptoms, you might also want to do a stress test if a patient has a family history of cardiac disease, or as a precautionary measure if a patient who has been sedentary wants to start an exercise program.”

There’s No Need to Be Afraid of a Stress Test

“It’s a simple, cost-effective, and low-risk procedure,” says Dr. Mahal. “You’ll be carefully monitored the whole time, and if there’s any problem at all which only about one in 10,000 patients will experience be reassured that your cardiologist is prepared and will be able to take care of you.”

There are Different Kinds of Stress Tests

The most common is the exercise stress test as described in “What Happens During an Exercise Stress Test?” above. Depending on your risk factors, your physician may prescribe a nuclear stress test, which is the same as an exercise stress test, except that a safe radioactive dye is injected and an imaging machine is used to take pictures. If for some reason you can’t handle the physical activity of a stress test, your doctor can prescribe a medication that will mimic the effects of exercise.

Your heart doesn’t beat just for you. Get it checked. To connect with one of New Jersey’s top cardiac specialists, visit Heart Care or call (888) 724-7123.