There are several tests and screenings that can be done to evaluate your heart health. From simple patient-friendly online assessments and calcium CT health screens to stress tests with cardiac imaging, these tests provide doctors with an idea of what your heart looks like and how it functions. If there is a concern with your heart, these screenings can provide further insights on how best to proceed with care.
What Is A Cardiac Stress Test?
“Cardiac stress tests check to see if there are any limitations of blood flow to the heart related to heart blockages,” says Karthikeyan Ananth, M.D., a cardiologist for Henry Ford Health. “Stress testing assesses the heart’s response to increased blood flow, allowing doctors to better diagnose coronary disease related to decreased blood flow to heart muscle.”
These tests help doctors to:
- Diagnose blockages in or around the heart
- Evaluate treatment progress for known cases of heart disease (for example, tests can help monitor how well medications are working)
- Monitor heart valve health and functionality
- Create a specialized exercise program that will allow you to work out without putting too much strain on your heart
- Determine if your heart is strong enough to undergo major surgeries such as an organ transplant
- Provide short-term outcomes (based on your family history, these tests are relatively accurate at predicting your likelihood of a heart attack 1-2 years out)
“Any physician who is concerned about heart blockages can order a stress test,” says Dr. Ananth. “In most cases, your primary care physician or cardiologist will order the test and then refer you for further evaluation or decide on medications based on your results.”
Types Of Cardiac Stress Tests
There are several different variations of these stress tests. Your health needs and current state at the time of the test will help your doctor determine the best test for you. Options include:
- Exercise-based stress test. This test is typically done on a treadmill or exercise bike while you are hooked up to an electrocardiogram, or EKG machine, to measure your heart’s activity. As you work out longer, the physical activity puts stress on your heart – allowing doctors to evaluate how your heart operates under stress.
- Chemical stress test. After being hooked up to a heart monitor, your doctor will administer a medication that mimics the effects of exercise on the heart (rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, etc.). This sort of test is often done when people are unable to perform an exercise-based stress test – for example is someone is obese, older or in poor health.
- Nuclear stress test. Similar to a chemical stress test, this test doesn’t involve exercise either. Instead, a radioactive tracer is placed into the bloodstream and then tracked to evaluate how blood flows to, from and through the heart.
- Cardiopulmonary exercise test. If you are starting cardiac rehab, your care team will likely order this stress test to measure the amount of oxygen that is exchanged between the heart and the lungs when you exercise. This allows them to design an exercise program that is best for you.
“The difference between your heart resting versus stressed is used to evaluate how your heart functions under different conditions,” says Dr. Ananth. “Even if we don’t see any blockages, it is important for us to look at how blood flow to the heart is impacted by strenuous activities.”
When You Should Consider A Cardiac Stress Test
Not everyone will get the same benefits from a cardiac stress test. National guidelines put out by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association state that if you aren’t experiencing symptoms related to heart problems and are living a healthy lifestyle, these tests are not recommended. If you are still concerned about your heart health, Dr. Ananth suggests you talk to your cardiologist about a coronary calcium scan instead. This test is better suited to determine your risk of cardiovascular complications.
If you are experiencing symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath (even when not exercising) or an irregular heartbeat, talk with your doctor. They will be able to determine the best test for your based on your medical history and lifestyle evaluation.
How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Karthikeyan Ananth is a cardiologist who specializes in general cardiology, valve disease, cardiac risk assessment and adult congenial heart disease. He sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.