Used to evaluate heart function, a stress test requires that a patient exercises on a treadmill or exercise bicycle while his or her heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, electrocardiogram (ECG), and feeling of well being are monitored.
When the body is active, it requires more oxygen than when it is at rest, and, therefore, the heart has to pump more blood. Because of the increased stress on the heart, exercise can reveal coronary problems that are not apparent when the body is at rest. This is why the stress test, though not perfect, remains the best initial, noninvasive, practical coronary test.
The stress test helps doctors determine how well the heart handles the increased demands imposed by physical activity. It is particularly useful for evaluating possible coronary artery disease, detecting inadequate supply of oxygen-rich blood to the tissues of the heart muscle (ischemia), and determining safe levels of exercise in people with existing heart disease.
The exercise stress test carries a very slight risk (1 in 100, 000) of causing a heart attack. For this reason, the exercise stress test should be attended by a health care professional with a defibrillator and other emergency equipment on standby.
The patient must be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack and stop the test if he or she develops any of the following symptoms:
- an unsteady gait
- skin is grayish or cold and clammy
- dizziness or fainting
- a drop in blood pressure
- chest pain (angina)
- irregular heart beat (cardiac arrhythmias)
The technician affixes electrodes to specific areas of the patient's chest, using special adhesive patches with a special gel that conducts electrical impulses. Typically, electrodes are placed under each collarbone and each bottom rib, and six electrodes are placed across the chest in a rough outline of the heart. Then the technician attaches wires from the electrodes to an ECG, which records the electrical activity picked up by the electrodes.
The technician runs resting ECG tests while the patient is lying down, then standing up, and then breathing heavily for half a minute. These tests can later be compared with the ECG tests performed while the patient is exercising. The patient's blood pressure is taken and the blood pressure cuff is left in place, so that blood pressure can be measured periodically throughout the test.
The patient begins riding a stationary bicycle or walking on a treadmill. Gradually the intensity of the exercise is increased. For example, if the patient is walking on a treadmill, the speed of the treadmill increases and the treadmill is tilted upward to simulate an incline. If the patient is on an exercise bicycle, the resistance or "drag" is gradually increased. The patient continues exercising at increasing intensity until he or she reaches his or her target heart rate (generally set at a minimum of 85% of the maximal predicted heart rate based on the patient's age) or experiences severe fatigue, dizziness, or chest pain. During this time, the patient's heart rate, ECG pattern, and blood pressure are continually monitored.
In some cases, other tests, such as echocardiography or thallium scanning, are also used in conjunction with the exercise stress test. For instance, recent studies suggest that women have a high rate of false negatives (results showing no problem when one exists) and false positives (results showing a problem when one does not exist) with the stress test. They may benefit from another test, such as exercise echocardiography. People who are unable to exercise may be injected with drugs that mimic the effects of exercise on the heart and given a thallium scan, which can detect the same abnormalities that an exercise test can.
Patients are usually instructed not to eat or smoke for several hours before the test. They should also tell the doctor about any medications they are taking. They should wear comfortable sneakers and exercise clothing.
After the test, the patient should rest until blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. If all goes well, and there are no signs of distress, the patient may return to his or her normal daily activities.
A number of abnormalities may show up on an exercise stress test. An abnormal electrocardiogram (ECG) may indicate deprivation of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle (ST wave segment depression, for example), heart rhythm disturbances, or structural abnormalities of the heart, such as overgrowth of muscle (hypertrophy). If the blood pressure rises too high or the patient experiences distressing symptoms during the test, the heart may be unable to handle the increased workload. Stress test abnormalities usually require further evaluation and therapy.
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"Cardiac Stress Testing: New Variations on an Old Theme." Harvard Men's Health Watch 1 (Mar. 1997): 10-4.
Castleman, Michael. "Is It Time for a Stress Test?" The Walking Magazine, Aug. 1995, 20-23.
"Exercise Stress Test." Mayo Clinic Health Letter 17 (Nov. 1994): 6-7.
"Going Somewhere Fast: Heart Test May Spare Extra Procedures." Prevention Magazine, 1 Aug. 1996, 49-50.
Merrill, Jim. "Don't Sweat a Stress Test." Diabetes Forecast (Oct. 1996): 32-36.
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American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. <http://www.americanheart.org>.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. P.O. Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov>.
Robert Scott Dinsmoor
Angina—Chest pain from a poor blood supply to the heart muscle due to narrowing of the coronary arteries.
Cardiac arrhythmia—An irregular heart rate or rhythm.
Coronary arteries—Two arteries that branch off from the aorta and supply blood to the heart.
Defibrillator—A device that delivers an electric shock to the heart muscle through the chest wall in order to restore a normal heart rate.
False negative—Test results showing no problem when one exists.
False positive—Test results showing a problem when one does not exist.
Hypertrophy—The overgrowth of muscle.
Ischemia—Dimished supply of oxygen-rich blood to an organ or area of the body.