What you can expect
The process of having a stress test includes the following:
- Before a stress test, the doctor will give the patient food and drink guidelines to help the patient prepare for the test. The patient will also be instructed to wear shoes and clothing appropriate for exercising if that's part of the test.
- Before beginning the stress test, the patient will be attached to different types of monitors that can include electrocardiogram (EKG) leads (wires attached to stickers on the chest), a blood pressure cuff, and a pulse oximeter (measures the saturation of oxygen to the blood). The patient may be asked to do breathing tests before and during exercise, which will require wearing a mouthpiece or a mask. The doctor may also want to draw blood work before and during exercise.
- Depending on the specific goals of the stress test, the patient will then be asked to walk/run on a treadmill, ride a stationary bike, or take medications to make the heart simulate the work it does with exercise. The patient will be given instructions based on the type of test.
- In addition to the continuous recording of the EKG, the doctor may also obtain an echocardiogram (ultrasound) during and after the stress test to assess the flow of blood and motion of the heart muscle. The patient may also receive a nuclear stress test, for which a small amount of radioactive tracer will be injected into the bloodstream. These imaging tests may be needed for some patients to increase the accuracy of the stress test.
A stress test is a very safe diagnostic tool for children and adults. The patient will be closely monitored during the test to keep exercise within safe limits. Very rarely, a person can have a heart attack during a stress test. Some patients may also experience low blood pressure or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) that usually resolve soon after the test is complete. Also, specific medication stress tests may make the patient feel short of breath or flushed for a short time.