For anyone dealing with chest pain or shortness of breath, your primary care doctor or cardiologist may recommend a nuclear stress test. Typically nuclear stress tests are performed at your cardiologist’s office and are an excellent diagnostic tool to show areas of low blood flow to the heart.
In the article below we discuss what a nuclear stress test is, the results, and some short tips on how you can improve your cardiovascular health.
A nuclear stress test allows your doctor to assess the blood flow to the heart by comparing two pictures of the heart, one of the heart at rest and one of the heart under stress. Typical candidates for the test are those who are having chest pain, an abnormal EKG or shortness of breath. Patients also generally have additional risk factors for cardiovascular disease that may include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease.
The nuclear stress test has two parts. First, a technologist will inject a radioactive isotope into your bloodstream and take a scan of your heart while you are at rest. The second portion of the test includes walking on a treadmill at a specific incline and pace until the patient’s heart rate reaches a target based on their age. If walking on a treadmill isn’t an option, the doctor can order medication to simulate the exercise.
The test can take up to four hours but is typically completed in two and a half hours. Unlike an MRI where a patient is enclosed while the scans are taken, the camera used for a nuclear stress test covers just your chest.
Patient preparation for the test is important. Four hours prior to the test, patients should not eat or drink anything, including water. Twelve hours prior to the test patients should avoid caffeine, and de-caf beverages as well as certain medications. Consult your physician about what medications to take prior to the test. Patients should wear comfortable walking clothes and shoes.
By comparing images taken at rest and while your heart is under stress, doctors are able to see what areas of the heart lack good blood flow. Those “cold” areas help doctors identify where a blockage might occur.
Typically, your doctor will read the test results at the end of the day. The patient normally goes home and gets a call within two to three business days. Depending on the results, they are either shared over the phone or a follow-up appointment is scheduled.
There are a number of ways patients can be proactive in improving their overall cardiovascular health. The top four recommendations include:
● Eat a healthy diet low in sodium and saturated fats. In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, make sure your diet is low in cholesterol.
● Take medications as prescribed. It’s important that patients follow their doctors’ orders and consistently take medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc, as prescribed.
● Quit smoking. Smoking is one of the top risk factors for cardiovascular disease. If you’re struggling to quit smoking, talk to your doctor about ideas to help you stay on track.
● Exercise regularly. 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day is good for your heart. You should talk to your doctor about what exercises are a good fit for you.
Cardiovascular testing is a great tool to help physicians diagnose disease but prevention is key to long term cardiovascular health.
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Published June 14, 2019