What is a Stress Test

If you’ve been experiencing certain heart issues, your doctor may suggest you take a stress test.

Now, don’t stress.

A stress test is not as stressful as it sounds, unless you’re terrified of exercise.

This type of heart testing is also called a treadmill test. It gives your doctor a better idea of how well your heart functions under a specific workload.

During the test, as your body gradually works harder, it demands more energy, therefore requiring your heart to pump more blood.

While this shows how your heart functions under physical stress, it also helps your doctor understand what level of exercise is appropriate or healthy for you.

Some heart issues are easier to diagnose once your heart is beating fast and working at a heightened level.

In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about a stress test, and why you really shouldn’t get too stressed over it — maybe just a bit, during it.

What Happens During a Stress Test?

man having stress test

As we mentioned above, doctors prefer doing tests while your heart is in an exercising mode as it’s easier to diagnose certain heart issues.

During a stress test, you will exercise, either by running or walking on a treadmill or while pedaling a stationary bike, to help boost your heart rate and encourage it to work faster.

While some medical conditions such as arthritis may prevent you from completing a stress test properly, your doctor usually has a medicine that helps your heart work as if it were exercising.

Overview of a Stress Test

Typically, doctors will use stress tests to help with diagnosing CHD or coronary heart disease. They may also use stress test results to figure out the severity of your specific CHD.

Let’s take a look into CHD a bit further.

What is CHD?

Coronary heart disease occurs when plaque begins building up in the coronary arteries, which are vital runways supplying oxygen-filled blood to your heart.

heart valve

This waxy plaque reduces the blood flow from these arteries to your heart and increases your chance of developing blood clots. When blood clots occur, they completely block the blood flow which leads to a heart attack.

Your resting heart rate may not provide any symptoms of CHD, however during exercise, your heart demands more oxygen and blood, which will help develop signs of CHD since narrow arteries won’t provide enough blood for your heart to perform properly.

A stress test can show abnormal heart rate or blood pressure changes. It may also result in shortness of breath or chest pain, which indicates your heart isn’t receiving enough blood while it’s working hard.

If this is the case, shortness of breath will occur especially at lower levels of exercise.

During a stress test, if the patient displays abnormal changes in the rhythm of electrical activity of the heart, these signs may also point towards a heart problem.

If you’re unable to exercise for a sufficient amount of time for someone your age, this too may be a sign that there’s not enough blood flowing into your heart.

That being said, other reasons besides CHD may prevent you from exercising long enough. These factors may include anemia, poor fitness, or lung disease.

This is why your doctor may require further testing to eliminate these possibilities.

Doctors may use stress tests to pinpoint other issues such as heart failure or heart valve disease.

Types of Stress Tests

In terms of stress tests, there are two common types: an exercise stress test and an imaging stress test.

As mentioned above, if the patient is unable to undergo the exercise stress test, the doctor may use medication that works your heart as if you were exercising.

Let’s look at the two main types of stress tests. 

Standard Exercise Stress Test

women having stress test

This standard stress test detects and records your heart’s electrical activity by using an EKG, or an electrocardiogram.

This device displays how quickly your heart is beating and what the rhythm of your heart is like. An EKG can also record the timing and strength of the electrical signals as they pass through your heart.

While undergoing a standard exercise stress test, your blood pressure will also be monitored and recorded. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may ask you to breathe into a tube during the test to observe your breathing and the gases you breathe out while exercising.

An exercise stress test provides information about your heart’s electrical activity and any changes that occur. It can also tell your doctor if your heart is receiving enough blood while you exercise.

Imaging Stress Test


To accompany some stress tests, your doctor may choose to have pictures taken of your heart while it’s working and resting.

These tests display how healthy your blood flow is and how well your heart pumps its blood while it beats.

How do you take pictures of a heart without surgery, you ask?

There are a couple methods.

One type of an imaging stress test uses an echo, or echocardiography. This device utilized sound waves to provide a live picture of your heart. An echo can also tell your doctor how well your heart valves and chambers are working while the heart is undergoing stress or hard work.

An echo may also display areas where there’s poor blood flow to your heart, of where the heart muscle wall isn’t contracting properly. It can also show dead heart muscle tissue and how much of the blood dye has reached parts of your heart while you’re at rest and during strenuous exercise as well.

Another type of imaging stress test may use radioactive dye to provide pictures of blood flow into your heart muscle.

This dye is injected into your bloodstream via a needle. The pictures displays how much dye has reached critical areas in your heart.

Imaging stress test tend to be more efficient for detecting CHD, compared to standard stress tests. They can also provide information about premature deaths or future heart attacks.

What to Do Before a Stress Test

father and son jogging

If you have a stress test scheduled with your doctor, there are a few steps you should consider before the appointment.

While your doctor will most likely tell you to follow these steps and precautions as well, it’s beneficial to have a couple checklists.

1. Skip the Meal Before

You shouldn’t eat before a stress test. As awful as it sounds, you need to head into the exercise with an empty belly. Try to schedule your stress test in the morning so you only have to postpone breakfast.

2. Understand Which Pills are Safe

Double-check with your doctor what medication should be taken before your stress test. Also, make sure you know which medications to avoid.

The point of the stress test is to observe the heart as its rate is high, so any medications that lower the heart rate won’t provide beneficial results.

3. Say “No” to Coffee

Avoid caffeine at least 24 hours prior to the stress test. Caffeine can boost your heart rate and blood pressure which is an issue for stress tests.

Also, avoid any over-the-counter medication or ask your doctor if certain medications such as headache tablets are alright to use, beforehand.

4. Exercise Before the Big Exercise

Try to exercise a bit beforehand to help provide the best stress test results possible.

5. Keep Your Diabetes in Check

Before your stress test, ask your doctor about your diabetes medication. If you typically use insulin for blood sugar management, you doctor may recommend only taking half of your usual dosage along with consuming a small meal four hours before the test. Bring your glucose monitor with you so you can check on your blood sugar level before and after the stress test.

Once the test is completed, you can take the rest of your medication and eat some food.

What is a Stress Test: Final Points

A stress test can give your doctor the answers he/she need to properly diagnose any issues with your heart.

Your heart is an incredible muscle.

By taking the steps towards figuring out what it needs, you’ll be able to care for it, encouraging it to continue pumping your body with nutrients, energy, and life.

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