Stressless Stress Tests: May 6, 2012

For many people, even the mention of a heart stress test can put them into a panic. But the goal is to diagnose heart conditions without unduly stressing anyone.

“Commonly we would do an EKG in the office, which is an electrocardiogram. That gives us an idea as to whether there’s been some heart damage perhaps in the past whether there’s something going on currently,” says Dr. Steven Lee, a cardiologist with Lee Memorial Health System.

From there doctors will very often order a stress test. It requires physical exertion to see how much stress the heart can tolerate before developing an abnormal rhythm or blood flow. Stress tests come in several varieties, beginning with…

“The most common one being just walking on a treadmill, but we can make the test more sensitive and basically more accurate by doing what’s called a nuclear stress test,” says Dr. Lee.

A nuclear stress test injects a harmless amount of radioactive substance into the patient. Doctors track it both during exercise and rest to monitor blood flow.

“And we compare the two sets of pictures to see if there is an abnormality or discrepancy between how much blood flow is going to the heart during exercise and how much blood flow is going to the heart without exercise,” says Dr. Lee.

For people who are too old or frail to walk on a treadmill safely, there’s a test for them too.

“We’re able to use what’s called a chemical or pharmacologic stress test, where we inject medication to dilate the arteries. That will kind of simulate what might happen with the heart during exercise,” says Dr. Lee.

By understanding the methods, patients are better equipped to approach their stress test calmly.