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How does a stress test work?

A stress test forces the heart to work harder while measures of heart function are monitored. This test can tell doctors if part of the heart muscle is not receiving enough blood due to blockages in the coronary arteries, if heart valves may not be working correctly or if a procedure to treat heart disease was successful, among other things.

The test involves asking a patient to exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike, or take medications that will make the heart respond as if the patient is exercising. During exercise, heart function is monitored by an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) machine that measures the electrical impulses in the heart. Common medications used for pharmacological (medication) stress tests include dipyridamole, dobutamine and adenosine.

A stress test is a practical way to assess your heart's capacity for work—and to identify coronary artery disease. A stress test involves inducing heart stress and then monitoring your heart's reaction. There are two ways to induce the necessary stress for a stress test. These can be used alone or together:

  • Exercise. An exercise stress test examines your heart function under the stress of exercise. In the test, you walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle at gradually increasing workloads.
  • Medication. If you can't exercise at a level that stresses your heart—for example, you have arthritis or another problem that limits your activity—your healthcare provider can give you a medication that stimulates your heart.

A stress test measures your heart health when you're both active and at rest. Doctors use stress tests to determine your risk of heart disease.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.