Top 5 Reasons to Get a Cardiac Stress Test This Year
The human body seems to be designed to move. When we don’t, our health suffers greatly. The widespread benefits of exercise are extremely well-documented, from reducing risk of heart disease and certain cancers, to maintaining bone and muscle strength long-term, to stress relief and enhanced sleep. In an increasingly sedentary world, exercise is probably the closest thing we have to a panacea.
And yet, exercise is itself an inherently stressful state to put your body in. Take a snapshot of your vital signs during your mid-morning jog, or on your third set of deadlift, and what do you see? Most likely:
- Your blood pressure is elevated;
- Your heart rate is through the roof;
- Your respiratory rate (read: breaths per minute) has probably doubled or tripled;
- Your body temperature is spiking;
But it turns out that this acute (i.e. short-lived) strain is actually necessary to produce the widespread health benefits. In response to the stress, your body builds back tougher, stronger. Your blood vessels relax more effectively, enhancing blood flow; your body ramps up production of natural antioxidants to buffer the stress; recovery systems promote cellular repair; muscles learn to move more efficiently; bones remodel themselves stronger. And these effects are just the tip of the iceberg.
All of this sets up a critical point at the crux of preventive cardiology: we want our patients to exercise for their long-term health, but we also want to make sure their body can handle the short-term stress we’re asking them to put it through.
Enter: the Cardiac Stress Test – a state-of-the-art diagnostic procedure that can determine your ability to tolerate exercise-induced stress. To find out more about how we use this tool at Men’s Health Boston, and when we recommend our patients consider this procedure, keep reading below.
What is a Cardiac Stress Test?
The goal of a cardiac stress test is to evaluate how your heart responds to different levels of exercise intensity. To do this, we ask patients to walk on a treadmill for about 10-15 minutes, starting off with a slow pace that gets progressively more difficult. Electrodes are connected to multiple points on your chest to monitor the electrical signals in your heart during the warm-up, peak exertion, and recovery phases of the test. Additionally, we track both heart rate and blood pressure throughout.
The test usually continues until you reach a target heart rate. How long and how hard you must exercise to in order to hit that target gives us a lot of information about how well your body adapts under stress. Sometimes the test is ended pre-maturely if a complication or risk is revealed. In these cases, it is actually much better to identify such problems within the controlled environment at our clinic, rather than having patients risk a serious consequence while trying to exercise on their own.
Though they can be extremely helpful in assessing cardiac risk, stress tests aren’t necessarily the right tool for everyone. Below, we outline the top situations in which stress tests are beneficial, and what kind of information they can provide in each. For people with specific symptoms and risk factors, it can be a powerful diagnostic tool and potentially a life-saving assessment.
Top 5 Reasons to Have a Stress Test Done:
1. To diagnose a blood flow issue in the heart, such as coronary artery disease (CAD).
Unexplained pain, tightness, or pressure in the chest could be a sign of coronary artery disease (CAD), which is when the blood vessels that supply the heart itself get damaged. They lose their ability to relax effectively, and plaques can form, leading to clotting and reduced blood flow. Over time, this can cause the characteristic symptoms described above (called “angina”). Consequences can be severe if left untreated, such as significantly higher risk of suffering a heart attack.
2. To check your heart before surgery.
Some surgeries carry more risk of complications, and your doctor may recommend having a stress test done beforehand. This can provide valuable information for modifying the surgery plan if needed. Certain conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, or CAD can also raise the risk of complication and warrant pre-emptive testing.
3. To assess your heart beat rhythm and to look for underlying issues like atrial fibrillation.
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, that feeling when your heart “skips a beat” is a relatively common occurrence. On occasion, even healthy people experience irregular heartbeats, known as palpitations, due to stress, caffeine, or even the normal effects of aging. However, for people who experience frequent palpitations, or a handful of related symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, or fainting, the underlying complication might be a lot more serious. Certain arrhythmias, the most common of which is atrial fibrillation (or “Afib”), can signal faulty electrical control within the heart muscle. If left untreated, Afib significantly raises the risk of having a stroke. During a stress test, the extra demand placed upon the heart can uncover and diagnose these faulty signals based on their electrical signature on the EKG.
4. To gauge the effectiveness of a cardiac treatment plan.
Even after you have been diagnosed with a heart condition, a stress test can provide a valuable objective benchmark for your doctor to determine whether or not your condition is improving with treatment.
5. To ensure safety before engaging in a structured exercise program.
Some patients also elect to undergo stress testing for peace of mind before beginning an exercise routine or participating in a physically demanding trip such as hiking. At MHB, we can help you assess your current level of cardiovascular fitness and build a program towards safely improving your tolerance over time.
Top symptoms that may warrant further investigation include:
- Pain or tightness in the chest, especially at rest
- Shortness of breath while performing routine tasks
- Frequent dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
- Frequent instances of abnormal heart beats, particularly when combined with any of the symptoms above
How Should You Prepare for a Stress Test?
When you schedule a stress test, your doctor will provide you with specific instructions on how to prepare leading up to the test. A few pieces of advice are common:
- Wear comfortable shoes and athletic clothing to your appointment, and avoid eating or drinking anything but water for 3 hours beforehand.
- Avoid food or beverages with caffeine for 24 hours before the exam. This means coffee and soda, but also certain teas and chocolate. (Note: decaf products often still contain small amounts of caffeine.)
- Discuss any conditions and medications with your cardiologist in advance. You may be instructed to stop certain heart medications such as beta blockers or calcium channel blockers in advance of the test. Other conditions, such as diabetes, may require additional safety measures. Discuss any concerns with your doctor.
How Do You Get a Stress Test in Boston?
The average heart beats over 2.5 billion times across a lifetime. Make each beat count.
If you think you would benefit from a stress test, we can help. For more information on our world-class cardiology care at Men’s Health Boston, click here. Speak with your primary care doctor for a referral to get evaluated, or call our office to schedule a full cardiac work-up today. We can help you determine what course of treatment is right for you.