Exercise Stress Test

What is an exercise stress test?

An exercise stress test is done to examine your heart as you exercise. While you exercise on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle, an ECG (also called an EKG or electrocardiogram) measures and records your heartbeat. Your blood pressure readings are also recorded while you exercise.

Exercise testing is one of the safest and most widely used tests for heart disease.

When is it used?

You may have an exercise test to check for narrowing in blood vessels that carry blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your heart. Narrowing of these blood vessels may not cause symptoms when you are resting. During exercise your heart works harder and needs more blood. Recording the ECG before, during, and after exercise can show if parts of your heart are not getting enough blood.

This test may also be done to see how well treatment for heart disease is working, or to help develop a safe exercise program for you.

How do I prepare for this test?

  • You may or may not need to take your regular medicines the day of the procedure. Some medicines may keep your heart rate from increasing to the level needed for the test. Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines and supplements that you take. Ask your provider if you need to avoid taking any medicine or supplements before the procedure.
  • Your healthcare provider will tell you when to stop eating and drinking before the procedure.
  • Tell your provider if you have had kidney problems or an allergy to chemicals, such as contrast dye. Contrast dye is used for some scans.
  • Follow any other instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
  • On the day of your test, wear comfortable clothing and shoes.
  • Ask any questions you have before the procedure. You should understand what your healthcare provider is going to do. You have the right to make decisions about your healthcare and to give permission for any tests or procedures.

What happens during the test?

The test lasts 30 to 60 minutes. Small sticky patches or suction cups are put on your chest for the ECG. An ECG is first done while you are resting. Your blood pressure is also measured while you are resting.

If a treadmill is being used for the test, you will then start a slow walk on the treadmill. If you are using a stationary bicycle, it will be easy to pedal at first. The treadmill or bicycle will make it harder to walk or peddle every couple of minutes. The ECG is watched constantly, and your blood pressure is measured at each change in treadmill speed or ease of pedaling.

You may have additional tests done at the same time as your exercise test:

  • A radioactive chemical called a radionuclide, or tracer, may be injected into a vein in your arm at the peak of exercise. These tracers give about the same amount of radiation as a chest X-ray. The tracer can show the blood flow in the heart. A detector placed over your chest uses the tracer to make pictures of its path to the heart. If there is good blood flow through the blood vessels, the pictures will show that the heart muscle picks up the tracer. If there is decreased or no blood flow, the pictures will show heart muscle that the tracer is not reaching.
  • A stress echocardiogram (ultrasound images of the beating heart) may be done just before and just after exercise. If you have narrowing in the blood vessels that carry blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your heart, the pumping of the heart shown on the echocardiogram after exercise will not be normal. The echocardiogram can also show how well your heart valves work at rest, and when you exercise.

Your healthcare provider will stop the test when a target heart rate, based on your age, is reached. The test will be stopped earlier if:

  • Your ECG or blood pressure changes a lot.
  • Your heart rhythm becomes abnormal.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You get too tired to keep going.

What happens after the test?

Usually, you can go home soon after the test. Your skin might be irritated by the adhesive on the electrode patches. Skin irritation will quickly go away after the patches are removed.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

What are the risks of this test?

Every procedure or treatment has risks. Some possible risks of this test include:

  • You may start having some chest pain during the test.
  • Your heart may go into a very fast rhythm.

Ask your healthcare provider how these risks apply to you. Be sure to discuss any other questions or concerns that you may have.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-10
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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