Stress Testing: What It Can (and Can’t) Reveal About Your Heart

Stress Testing: What It Can (and Can’t) Reveal About Your Heart

A stress test, in the world of cardiology, doesn't refer to how many responsibilities and frustrations you can handle at once—although that kind of stress can also affect your heart health. Instead, when your doctor suggests a stress test, they’re likely referring to an exercise stress test, which is done to see how your heart performs when it’s pumping increasingly harder. 

Our experts at Maryland Cardiology Associates in Greenbelt, Maryland, often ask patients to take exercise stress tests, but we also think it’s important for you to understand what we can learn from the test—as well as what the test can’t tell us. 

Too often, patients expect that one diagnostic procedure holds the key to understanding their health, but that’s not usually how it works.

What to expect from a stress test

When you have an exercise stress test, you’ll be on either a treadmill or stationary bicycle, and we connect you to equipment to monitor your heart like a blood pressure cuff and electrodes. 

The speed and resistance will slowly increase so your heart needs to work harder as the test progresses. The test lasts 10-15 minutes, or until you reach a target heart rate that’s based on your age and fitness level. 

If you have pain, become short of breath, feel dizzy, or if the monitoring equipment shows a problem, the test will stop immediately. After the test, we continue to monitor you until your heart rate returns to normal, which usually takes another 10-15 minutes. 

Why you might be asked to take a stress test

If you’ve been having symptoms such as chest pain, pain in your legs, or shortness of breath, your doctor may want you to take a stress test.

Your doctor may also ask for a stress test if they suspect you have coronary artery disease (CAD), which is the most common type of heart disease, and the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. 

What we can learn from a stress test

A stress test can have either normal or abnormal results. Normal results show that your heart is functioning normally, but it’s important to know that a stress test alone isn’t enough to diagnose you with CAD or rule it out. 

It can, however, help your doctor understand whether it’s more or less probable that you have CAD. A stress test can also show whether or not treatments are working for you, and it can help your doctor determine how much and with what intensity you should be exercising. 

What we can’t learn from a stress test

If the results of a stress test are normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have CAD. It’s simply one indicator. If you have a normal stress test, but you have symptoms, your doctor may want you to take other tests. 

If your test results are abnormal, you’ll likely need additional diagnostic tests to determine how severely your arteries are blocked. In most cases, an abnormal stress test combined with other risk factors such as age, smoking status, family health history, and others is of more concern than an abnormal result without symptoms or other risk factors. 

More information is better

In the end, exercise stress tests are safe and give your doctor more information about your heart health. With more information, your doctor is more able to correctly diagnose your issues and design a treatment program that will work for you. 

If you need an exercise stress test, or if you have questions about the test, schedule an appointment with one of the experts at Maryland Cardiology Associates. Call our office today or book a visit online anytime. We’re always happy to help you live a heart-healthy life! 

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