What is a Cardiac Stress Test?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2019
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A cardiac stress test is a medical test that involves putting the heart under physical stress in a controlled environment. This test is performed to evaluate blood flow to the heart and determine how well the heart muscle is functioning. A cardiac stress test is also called a cardiac test, exercise stress test or treadmill stress test.

Physical stress such as cardiovascular exercise causes the heart to pump harder in order to continue circulating oxygenated blood throughout the body. The increased pressure the heart is under can reveal cardiac problems that are not normally evident, because blood flow is more likely to become compromised when the heart is under physical stress. A cardiac stress test is therefore an important diagnostic tool for cardiac conditions such as heart disease, disturbances in heart rhythm and congenital heart defects. In addition, this test can be used to determine the intensity of exercise that a patient can safely carry out.


A patient who is scheduled to undergo a stress test must prepare for the test several hours in advance. He or she must avoid eating, drinking any kind of beverage and smoking for at least three hours prior to the scheduled test time. In addition, he or she might be required to stop taking medications before the test, so it is important to ensure that medical personnel know in advance of any being used. People who take Viagra should ensure they do not use a dose in the 24 hours prior to the test.

At the beginning of a cardiac stress test, the patient’s blood pressure and pulse are recorded. In addition, the patient will undergo an initial electrocardiogram (EEG) to measure the heart’s electrical activity. These initial recordings provide a baseline with which to compare the test results.

Next, the patient is fitted with devices that record blood pressure, pulse and electrical activity while he or she is exercising. The next phase of the test is the exercise portion, during which the patient walks or runs on a treadmill until he or she reaches a previously determined target heart rate. The incline and pace of the treadmill might be increased during the test, depending on how the patient performs. Once the exercise portion of the test is complete, the patient stops exercising, and his or her heart is monitored for the next 15 minutes, or until it returns to the baseline level of activity.

A cardiac stress test generally is a safe procedure, despite the fact that the heart is being placed under physical stress. In rare cases, a patient might have chest pain or might faint, but it is extremely rare for a patient to have a heart attack or experience a dangerous irregular heart rhythm. If a patient has chest pain or another side effect during the exercise phase, the test ends prematurely, and the patient is allowed to rest.



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