What tests are used to diagnose heart failure?

These tests help your doctor find out the cause of your symptoms and decide the best treatment for you:

  • Electrocardiogram, also called "EKG" or "ECG," records the electrical activity of your heart. It may show irregular beats or abnormal areas of the heart.
  • Echocardiogram, often called "Echo," is an ultrasound of your heart. It uses sound waves to measure the heart's size and shape and looks at your heart valves. It also looks at how well your heart fills with blood and how well it pumps. This is known as the "ejection fraction." Your ejection fraction is the percentage or amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat. The normal ejection fraction is between 55 percent and 70 percent. This number is often lower in patients who have heart failure.
  • Chest x-ray is a picture of your heart and lungs. Your doctor can see if your heart is enlarged or if there is a lot of fluid in your lungs.
  • MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, uses a combination of radio waves in a magnetic field to produce a three-dimensional picture of your heart. The doctor can see the blood vessels and chambers of your heart in more detail.
  • Cardiopulmonary Exercise Test is a kind of stress test. This test measures the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the tissues of your body while you exercise. During this stress test, you will pedal a bicycle or walk on a treadmill and use a mouthpiece to breathe. MIBI Stress Test is another type of stress test. This is a test to find out how well your heart muscle is supplied with blood when you are at rest and when you exercise.
  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Scan is another test to measure the blood flow to the heart muscle and to look for signs of blockages in the vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle. This test also looks for small areas of the heart that need oxygen and may be damaged but are still alive.
  • Blood Tests may be taken to find out possible causes of your heart failure.
  • Heart Catheterization is done under sterile conditions in the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory (also called the "Cath Lab").

There are a number of tests used to diagnose heart failure. Most doctors start with a basic chest x-ray. An ultrasound test called an echocardiogram looks specifically at the function of the heart valves and the pressure and flow of blood moving through the heart. This test is essential if chronic heart failure is a possibility.

There are a number of other tests commonly used, including a blood test known as BNP and an electrical test called an electrocardiogram. Once the diagnosis of heart failure is made, more specialized tests may include stress testing, Holter monitoring to check the heart rhythm, and even heart catheterization.

Besides stress tests and echocardiograms, cardiac catheterization may be done if narrowing in your heart arteries is suspected. Ultrafast CT scans can detect buildup of calcium in the heart arteries. Multi-slice cardiac CT scans take X-ray pictures of the beating heart, major blood vessels, lungs and the sac around the heart. Sometimes IV contrast is given and pictures are also taken of the heart arteries. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is sometimes needed to find the reason for heart failure. MRI offers more detail about the lower heart chambers. In some cases, an MRI is helpful to find out more about how well the heart pumps. Nuclear scans can also be used. Sometimes a positive emission tomography (PET scan) or a thallium scan is needed to see if bypass surgery will help certain areas of the heart.

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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.