What you can expect

Your stress test will take around an hour, including both your prep time and the time it takes to perform the actual test. The actual test takes only around 15 minutes. You may have an exercise stress test in which you walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle. If you aren't able to exercise, you'll receive a drug through an IV that mimics exercise by increasing blood flow to your heart.

Before a stress test

First, your doctor will ask you some questions about your medical history and how often and strenuously you exercise. This helps determine the amount of exercise that's appropriate for you during the test. Your doctor will also listen to your heart and lungs for any abnormalities that might affect your test results.

During a stress test

A nurse or technician will place sticky patches (electrodes) on your chest, legs and arms. Some areas may need to be shaved to help them stick. The electrodes have wires connected to an electrocardiogram machine, which records the electrical signals that trigger your heartbeats. A cuff on your arm checks your blood pressure during the test. You may be asked to breathe into a tube during the test to show how well you're able to breathe during exercise.

If you're not exercising, your doctor will inject the drug into your IV that increases blood flow to your heart. You might feel flushed or short of breath, just as you would if you were exercising. You might get a headache.

You'll probably exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike, starting slowly. As the test progresses, the exercise gets more difficult. You can use the railing on the treadmill for balance. Don't hang on tightly, as this may skew the results.

You continue exercising until your heart rate has reached a set target or until you develop symptoms that don't allow you to continue. These signs and symptoms may include:

  • Moderate to severe chest pain
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Abnormally high or low blood pressure
  • An abnormal heart rhythm
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Certain changes in your electrocardiogram

You and your doctor will discuss your safe limits for exercise. You may stop the test anytime you're too uncomfortable to continue exercising.

After a stress test

After you stop exercising, you may be asked to stand still for several seconds and then lie down for a period of time with the monitors in place. Your doctor can watch for any abnormalities as your heart rate and breathing return to normal.

When your exercise stress test is complete, you may return to your normal activities unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Nov. 09, 2017
References
  1. What is stress testing? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/stress. Accessed Sept. 8, 2017.
  2. Yanowitz FG, et al. Exercise ECG testing: Performing the test and determining the ECG results. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Sept. 8, 2017.
  3. Fletcher GF, et al. Exercise standards for testing and training. Circulation. 2013;128:873.
  4. Bonow RO, et al., eds. Exercise testing. In: Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 11, 2017.
  5. Stress nuclear study. American College of Cardiology. https://www.cardiosmart.org/News-and-Events/2013/01/Video-Stress-Nuclear-Study. Accessed Sept. 11, 2017.
  6. Mankad R (expert opinion). Rochester, Minn. Sept. 14, 2017.