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What can I Expect During an ECG Stress Test?

Marisa O'Connor
Marisa O'Connor

An ECG stress test is a simple, fairly quick, noninvasive method to monitor heart health. You can expect your doctor to place electrodes on your chest and a blood pressure monitor on your arm to record how your heart responds to stress. Then you will be asked to exercise for about 15 minutes, until your target heart rate is reached. After that, you will cool down, and the results of the test should be available within the week.

The ECG stress test is a way for physicians to monitor heart health during exercise. It is called a stress test because exercise stresses the heart. This test is beneficial because many heart problems can only be detected while the heart is working hard. It can detect heart attack risk factors such as blocked arteries and irregular heart beats that may not show during a resting heart beat exam.

A man getting an ECG stress test.
A man getting an ECG stress test.

Preparing for an ECG stress test is fairly simple. Your doctor will give you any special instructions, if needed, regarding medications. Patients taking heart medications may be asked to stop taking them a day or two before the test in order to get more accurate results. Prepare just as you would for 15 minutes of strenuous exercise. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes and don't eat or drink anything two hours prior to the test. Be sure to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine the day of the test.

ECG stress tests are typically performed in a doctor's office or hospital. Your doctor will place several electrodes to your chest and shoulder area, which are connected to the ECG machine. The machine keeps a noninvasive recording of heart function. You will also be attached to a blood pressure monitor that will record blood pressure during the test.

Once you are all hooked up to the monitors, the ECG stress test can begin. The most common method used to stress the heart is a treadmill, but a stationary bike may also be used. A doctor will watch and record your physical reaction to exercise as the intensity is slowly increased over a 15-minute period. The doctor will ask you to tell him or her about any difficulty breathing, chest pain, or other discomfort. If symptoms are severe, the test will be cut short.

When your target heart rate is reached, you will continue to be monitored during a cool-down period. This may involve resting in a seat or walking slowly until your heart returns to its resting pace. The ECG stress test is over at this point, and the electrodes will be removed. Results usually take about a week to process. Your doctor's office should contact you when they are ready.

If physical exercise is too risky for a patient, a chemical ECG stress test may be administered. Your doctor will give you medication that increases heart rate, simulating physical exercise. Side effects of this medication include headache, flushed cheeks, and anxiety, but they are temporary and usually go away as soon as the test is over.

An ECG stress test, from start to finish, takes about 45 minutes to an hour. This includes preparation time, the stress test itself, and cool-down time. The actual stress test lasts only about 15 minutes. Risks of the test are equal to 15 minutes of exercise, but can include heart attack. Fortunately, these tests are supervised my medical staff and often are performed in a hospital, so it's a fairly safe environment even if something were to go wrong.

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    • A man getting an ECG stress test.
      By: nyul
      A man getting an ECG stress test.