A stress echocardiogram is a test which is used to look for signs of coronary artery disease and other problems which impair heart function. Doctors usually order this test when they suspect that the arteries around the heart are constricted, and after the data from a stress echocardiogram has been collected, the doctor may recommend additional testing or procedures to confirm the presence of heart disease. Stress echocardiograms are performed as outpatient procedures, with the patient coming into a hospital or clinic for the testing and then leaving afterwards.
Stress echocardiograms combine two things: a treadmill stress test, and echocardiography. Treadmill stress tests are used to test heart function while someone is active, under the assumption that only conducting medical tests in the resting state could cause a doctor to miss the signs of a problem. In a stress test, the time on a treadmill or stationary bicycle puts strain on the heart, allowing doctors to see how the heart performs during exercise. For patients who cannot exercise due to physical limitations, the heart will be stressed with a drug.
An echocardiogram is simply an image of the heart created with the use of ultrasound. In a stress echocardiogram, the heart is imaged at the start of the test, to get a resting reading, and then again after the stress test, to see how strain has changed the picture. During the stress test, the patient is connected to an electrocardiograph machine or ECG, so that continuous readings can be taken.
When patients go in for a stress echocardiogram, they should plan on spending at least an hour in testing. Wearing loose, comfortable clothing and athletic shoes to make the exercise more comfortable is highly advised. Patients are also usually asked to refrain from eating for three hours before the test, so that they do not become nauseous during the treadmill stress test, and they may also be asked to abstain from medications which could alter heart function.
There are some risks to a stress echocardiogram. This test is usually ordered because a doctor suspects that a patient has problems with heart function, and exercising with an unhealthy heart can be dangerous. The patient may develop chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms before the test is finished, in which case the test will need to be aborted. There is also a risk of experiencing a cardiac event during the stress test, which is why it is performed under the supervision of a doctor who can step in if the patient needs medical assistance.
Results from a stress echocardiogram are usually not available immediately. The doctor needs to review the ultrasound images and the ECG readouts. Usually, the doctor or a nurse will call within a few days to discuss the test results and the necessary next steps, if any.