My Experience with a Stress Test
I recently underwent a stress test. This is not my first stress test. However, this was a pharmacological stress test, which was new and intimidating for me. I was lucky I was in a hospital where the attending doctor was able to explain things.
However, I was an admitted patient when this happened, and I understand how it can be in a doctor's appointment where there is not time to have a lengthy conversation or you are not given the chance to process before questions might arise. I wanted to use my newfound knowledge and experiences to help educate others in case your care team also orders a stress test.
What is a stress test, and why would I need one?
First, keep in mind that your heart has 2 important components: the heart muscle itself, and the coronary arteries, which feed the heart its blood supply and oxygen. Like any other muscle, your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack means that your arteries are blocked to the extent that the heart muscle itself isn't receiving enough blood. Just because you may not be having a heart attack does not mean that your coronary arteries are not all blocked. For instance, my father just had a stress test that showed an issue, but he has never (and hopefully will never) had a heart attack...1
A stress test can be ordered to evaluate issues including:3
- Those with your heart muscle or valves
- Whether your heart muscle has adequate blood supply from your coronary arteries
- Whether your heart is at risk of an abnormal rhythm at rest or during exercise
Keep in mind that the stress test shows how your heart is working at rest AND under activity. This is why the test typically involves a treadmill or prescription drugs to mimic the effect of exercise. The activity component of the test is important because if you are under exertion, your heart has to pump harder. This test shows what your heart can really do and can show underlying issues that might or might not have appeared while you're at rest. 2
My experience having a nuclear stress test
I underwent a nuclear stress test, meaning that instead of a treadmill they gave me medicine to mimic the effects of exercise. Overall, the experience was worse than I was expecting but not as bad as it could be. The test happens in an MRI-like tube, so if you are claustrophobic I would talk to your care team. As far as the process, there was a series of images that had to be taken first to get a picture of the heart at rest before the medicine is injected. During that time, I had to lie still.
Admittedly the "fun" happened when the medicine was injected that mimicked exercise. I was told that I might feel a bit uncomfortable. I had to stay still when the medicine was doing its thing, and there was medicine they could give me to reverse the effects of the medicine if my heart did not calm down completely by the end. I will be transparent about my experiences: When they injected this medicine I felt like CRAP. It was beyond heart beating and some nausea. I would describe it as total body pain while having to stay completely still with an arm raised.
Not all experiences are the same
However, this may not be everybody's experience, and the uncomfortable part was relatively short. Also, the reversal medicine did completely (from a symptom perspective) make me feel normal again. There was no long-term recovery. So, while not fun, I got over it. I hope this helps you understand the purpose of the test and feel prepared for how the test is done. Don't worry – you will get through it!
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