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Heart Health: Should You Get a Stress Test?

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women. If you have a history of heart disease in your family, are worried that you have not made healthy lifestyle decisions, or want to know if you are at low-risk of a cardiac incident, you may be wondering if you should obtain a stress test. Before you ask your primary care physician about testing, read on to understand what a stress test is, what it identifies, and who should receive one.

What is a Stress Test?

Despite what you may infer from its name, a stress test is not an indication of how much emotional stress and anxiety you experience throughout your daily life (though there are ways to determine mental health risk factors, and if you have concerns, you should speak with your doctor). A stress test, or an exercise stress test, reports data to indicate how your heart performs during physical activity. Since the heart needs to pump blood faster and harder during activity, a stress test can show if there are blood flow issues in the heart that may impact your overall health or put you at risk of a cardiac incident, particularly when under physical stress.

How is a Stress Test Performed?

To obtain data about how your heart performs during physical activity, the test facilitator will ask you to perform moderate physical activity in a secure setting while closely monitored. Patients are typically asked to ride a stationary bicycle or walk on a treadmill while monitors collect data regarding any atypical heart rhythms, blood pressure, and oxygen flow.

Who Should Obtain a Stress Test?

The American College of Physicians (ACP) advises that many patients at low risk of heart problems, do not need to obtain a stress test. Patients considered low-risk commonly are young, active, follow a healthy diet, and do not have a family history of early heart disease

Your doctor may recommend a stress test if you have experienced symptoms of coronary artery disease (CAD) or noticed an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) on multiple occasions. Symptoms of CAD may include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations—the sensation that your heart is rapidly pounding, fluttering, or skipping beats

The Risks of Unnecessary Screening

Follow the advice of your doctor and obtain a stress test only when prescribed. The ACP advises that unnecessary stress tests may create unnecessary physical or emotional strain. The tests, the ACP says, may result in false-positive results, which can lead to additional, more complicated testing. Stress tests may also place patients at unnecessary risk of an exercise-related injury, exposure to radiation, or an adverse reaction to an injection.

If you are experiencing symptoms of CAD, and believe that you may be developing a condition that could put you at risk of a heart-related illness or event, talk to your doctor. He or she will assess your health history, family history, and symptoms, and help you devise the most appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment plan.

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