Cardiac Stress Test: What Is It and How Is It Performed?

A cardiac stress test is a means of diagnosing possible heart problems or making a prognosis about them. It's also used to follow up on an established heart disease. Learn more in this article!
Cardiac Stress Test: What Is It and How Is It Performed?

Last update: 14 May, 2021

A cardiac stress test is a simple, non-invasive test performed to evaluate the body’s reaction to physical exercise. The general objective is to observe the response and the way the body adapts to the demands of physical exertion.

This type of test is becoming increasingly common in today’s world, as it provides valuable information about a person’s state of health and capabilities. A cardiac stress test is performed for both diagnostic and prognostic purposes.

It’s recommended that people undergo a stress test before starting an exercise routine or training for a sport. Depending on the circumstances, exercise and/or sports may eventually aggravate hidden illnesses or generate new ones.

What is a cardiac stress test?

The stress test is a physical endurance test by which the body is monitored during the performance of various physical exercises. The objective is to evaluate how the heart responds to physical activity.

This test is also called ergometry. Many cardiac diseases don’t present any symptoms while the person is at rest. However, they may become evident when the body must work harder. Exercise can simulate this demand.

The stress test makes it possible to detect if there’s any type of cardiac problem or to follow up with a patient who has already received a diagnosis. The resulting information helps to make a prognosis of the heart’s performance and to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment if any.

A man talking to his doctor about his heart.
The stress test can detect silent heart disease, i.e. without obvious symptoms.

Continue reading: Electrocardiogram or EKG: Seven Steps to Interpret It

Who is the cardiac stress test for?

Both healthy people and those who already have some cardiac illness can take a cardiac stress test. This test is useful to diagnose coronary heart disease or arrhythmias. It also helps to determine the level of risk of heart attack or serious disease. Also, to establish what level of exercise is safe for each person.

Generally, doctors order this type of test in the following circumstances:

  • When there are symptoms of reduced blood flow to the heart. These may include chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, tachycardia.
  • When there’s a risk of heart disease. This is higher in those with diabetes or a family history of heart disease.
  • To evaluate a pathology or treatment. In those who have had a heart attack, have undergone heart surgery, or are undergoing some type of treatment for heart disease.
  • When starting an exercise program. The test allows for the assessment of the potential risk of exercise.

What does the cardiac stress test involve?

The stress test takes about an hour, including preparation time. The first thing that medical professionals do is place adhesive patches – or electrodes – on the patient’s chest, arms, and legs. These connect by wires to a machine that produces an electrocardiogram.

They also place a cuff to monitor blood pressure during the test. Those who don’t exercise regularly are given intravenous medication. Afterward, the patient may feel warmth in the face, shortness of breath, or a headache.

Next, the patient will begin exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike. Slowly, at first, and then the degree of difficulty gradually increases. Medical staff may ask the examinee to breathe through a tube during the test to assess respiratory function.

The test will continue until achieving the pre-set goal or until symptoms appear that prevent further testing. The patient will then have to stay still and then lie down, always with the monitors in place. The physician will indicate when the test is finished.

An athlete undergoing a cardiac stress test.
It’s beneficial for athletes to undergo a stress test.

Find out more: The Risks of a Sedentary Lifestyle on Your Heart

Aspects to take into account

Stress tests are safe but aren’t recommended for pregnant women. Only very rarely do they lead to complications such as low blood pressure, arrhythmias, or heart attack. Rarely, an allergic reaction to the injected medication occurs.

The physician should indicate how the patient should prepare for this type of test. If they don’t, the appropriate thing to do is for the patient to ask them about it. In general, you’re only asked to wear comfortable clothes and shoes and to reduce food intake a few hours before the test.

Tell your health care provider about any drugs you are using as some may alter the test results. This type of test requires an informed consent form to be signed before the test is performed.

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  • Montero, F. C., Peinado, P. B., & Zapico, A. G. (2002). Aplicación práctica de las pruebas de esfuerzo. Selección, 11(4), 202-209.