One of the ways your doctor can check how well your heart works is with a stress test, sometimes called a treadmill test. It’s also known as an exercise stress test because it shows how your heart works during exercise or physical activity. If your doctor has ordered this test, you’re probably wondering:
- What to do — and what not to do — before a stress test.
- What happens during the test?
- How long is a stress test?
Learn more about stress tests, why you might need one, and what to expect.
What Is a Stress Test?
“During exercise, your heart has to work harder to pump blood,” said Amanda Morey, CRNP, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, “A stress test helps your doctor determine how well your heart handles increased physical activity. And it helps diagnose heart problems that might not show up when you’re resting.”
Before the test, a technician will attach electrodes (small sensors that stick to your skin) to your chest. They’ll connect those to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine. The electrodes measure your heart rate and rhythm while you’re walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.
You’ll start exercising slowly, but they’ll ask you to walk or bike faster to see how your heart responds. You’ll also gradually increase the incline on the treadmill or resistance on the bike. You won’t have to push yourself too hard — just hard enough to make sure your heart rate increases.
If you’re not healthy enough to exercise, your doctor will give you medicine through an IV in your arm. The medicine will make your heart beat faster, as though you’re exercising.
How long is a stress test?
The actual exercise stress test itself takes about 15 minutes. But after the test, your health care provider will monitor you and continue to measure your heart rate for another 15 minutes. You should expect the entire test to last about an hour with prep time.
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Other Types of Stress Tests
Instead of a regular stress test with an EKG, your doctor might order one that takes pictures of your heart during exercise. These tests show how blood flows through your heart during exercise. These imaging stress tests include:
- A nuclear stress test. This shows how your heart works during exercise and how blood moves through your heart’s vessels. You’ll get an IV with a contrast dye before starting. A technician takes pictures of your heart and blood vessels with a special camera before, during, and after exercise.
- A stress echocardiogram. This test captures moving pictures of your heart using sound waves. A technician passes a wand-like device that makes sound waves over your chest before, during, and after exercise. The sound waves create pictures of your heart as it pumps blood.
These exercise stress tests with imaging take several hours or longer to complete.
What Are the Signs You Need a Stress Test?
Your doctor may order a stress test to check how your heart is working before or after heart surgery. A stress test also helps health care professionals monitor heart problems and treatments to see if they’re working. This test also helps diagnose coronary artery disease (blocked arteries in your heart).
Your doctor might order a stress test if you have these signs or symptoms:
- Chest pain.
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
- Shortness of breath.
- Fatigue or dizziness during physical activity.
Preparing for a Stress Test
When you schedule your stress test, your health care provider will review any details about what to do and where to go. Usually, stress tests take place at an outpatient facility, but they can also be at a hospital.
There isn’t much preparation on your part, but your doctor may tell you what not to do before a stress test. This might include things like:
- Don’t eat or drink anything for a period before the test.
- Don’t smoke before the test.
- Don’t wear uncomfortable clothing or shoes that might restrict your exercise.
Ask your doctor if it’s OK to take any medicines on the day of the test. Some might affect heart rate or blood pressure.
A stress test is reasonably quick, non-invasive, and painless. A health care professional will monitor you the entire time. If they notice any heart problems or you have complications like dizziness or lightheadedness, they’ll have you stop the test.
NIH National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. Stress Tests. LINK
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.