The pressure's on
Stress tests provide a noninvasive way to detect heart problems
These days there are hundreds of tests for thousands of different diseases, some that require only a vial of blood, others that include an x-ray, and those that are a bit more invasive—tiny wires inserted into blood vessels to detect problems. In testing the condition of the heart, doctors prefer to begin with the least invasive of all tests: the stress test. No, you will not be tied down to a chair and shown your piling unpaid bills, nor will you be shoved off a bridge with a bungee cord wrapped around your ankles. (Both scenarios may already be stressing you out a little.) A stress test is, for some people, even more awful than that because it involves…exercise!
A stress test gives doctors information about how a patient’s heart works during physical stress (the part where you can’t breathe and think that you are surely going to die). The test usually involves walking or running on a treadmill or pedaling on a stationary bike to make your heart beat faster. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiogram are measured at this time. A stress test can help doctors determine if enough blood is flowing to your heart when you are active, determine your likelihood of developing heart disease, identify abnormal heart rhythms, and help you develop a safe exercise program (that will not make you feel like you might be dying from a heart attack).
There are a few different types of stress tests that can be performed, depending on how you react to each. If you are able to walk or run on the treadmill and produce a normal ECG, that may be the only test required for doctors tell the condition of your heart. If you are unable to exercise drugs can be administered to make the heart beat faster, just like if you were exercising. (Unfortunately it doesn’t help you burn any calories at all.) A stress echocardiogram (or an “echo”) produced those wiggly lines you often see on medical shows, offering a visual of the heart’s movement under stress. The echo can reveal a lack of blood flow that other tests may not reveal. Finally, a nuclear stress test involves a small amount of radioactive substance that is injected into you. The doctor then uses a camera to see a clear picture of the heart tissue. No superpowers are promised.
There are, of course, risks associated with stress tests, though none that are too dangerous. Only one in 5,000 people will experience a heart attack during a stress test. Other risks include arrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat), low blood pressure, and general discomfort. And if you do pass out on the treadmill during a stress test, it may not be your heart that is a problem. It could be your lungs or anemia or a general distaste for exercise. If you’ve never exercised before, a stress test is likely to be very, very stressful.
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