What Is a Nuclear Stress Test?

In order to know the size of your heart's chambers, your doctor may recommend a nuclear stress test. What is a nuclear stress test? The test provides pictures of your heart while you are resting and after you have done some exercise. A nuclear stress test will provide important information about the size of your heart's chamber as well as any damage done to the heart muscle. It also helps determine how well your heart is pumping blood. Your doctor may ask you to take a stress test when you have peripheral artery disease or you are diabetic and over age 40.

What Is a Nuclear Stress Test?

A nuclear stress test works by measuring the blood flow to your heart. It measures the flow of blood at rest and while you make your heart work harder through physical exertion. The test provides images of low blood flow areas, identifying damaged heart muscle and other issues. Your doctor may recommend a stress test for the following reasons:

  • They suspect you have symptoms associated with coronary artery disease, such as chest pain or shortness of breath and they want to confirm it through a stress test.
  • They want to examine the shape and size of the heart to confirm if its size has increased and if it is pumping enough blood.
  • They ask for a test to help treat heart conditions, such as arrhythmia.

Are There Any Side Effects of Nuclear Stress Test?

The test is general safe with little to no complications. There are certain risks of complications that happen rarely. For instance:

  • You may develop an allergic reaction to the radioactive dye that needs to be injected in your arm during the test.
  • You may have to deal with arrhythmias that causes abnormal heart rhythms, but this issue usually resolves after some time.
  • You may experience some chest pain after you are given a medication to stress your heart. Tell your doctor about how you feel.
  • A heart attack is extremely rare but is possible.

How Much Does Nuclear Stress Cost?

You will spend about $200 on a basic exercise cardiac stress test. Eco stress tests are usually more expensive and may cost you about $1500. Some doctors may go for a test that utilizes a radioactive dye to illuminate how well your heart is working. Such tests usually cost about $630. These are just average figures and you may need to consult your doctor for the exact cost of your test.

How to Prepare for a Nuclear Stress Test

Now that you have the answer to your question "What is a nuclear stress test", you may want to know how to prepare yourself before undergoing one. Here are a few things to remember.

  • You can eat or drink but try not to have anything at least 4 hours prior to your test.
  • Take your medications with small sips of water.
  • Do not have any product containing caffeine at least 24 hours before your test. Avoid taking any OTC medications that may contain caffeine.
  • Keep a copy of all your medications with you – be sure to include OTC medications and supplements as well.
  • Do not take theophylline for 48 hours before the test if you have asthma.
  • Ask your physician about the amount of insulin you should take before the test if you have diabetes.
  • Do not take Nitroglycerin, Isosorbide monoitrate, Isosorbide dinitrate and any other heart medication that your doctor asks you to avoid on the day of the test.

What Is the Procedure of Nuclear Stress Test?

What is a nuclear stress test? It is a common question, but people also want to know the procedure of the test. Here is more about the cardiac stress test procedure:

1. Inject the First Tracer

The procedure starts with you receiving an injection thallium. This radioactive tracer circulates in your body for 5-10 minutes and prepares your heart for the test. The resting portion of cardiac stress test will take about half an hour to complete. This helps determine the resting blood flow to your heart.

2. Monitor Your Heart Rhythm While Exercising

Your doctor will place small pads called electrodes on your chest to check your heart during physical exertion. An electrocardiogram will be utilized to monitor your heart rhythm during the test. You will be walking on a treadmill for some time. You usually need to continue with exercise for as long as you can. Your doctor will place an intravenous tube in your arm about a minute before you complete your exercise session.

3. Inject the Second Tracer

Sometimes, you cannot exercise hard due to some previous medical problems. If that is the case, your doctor will replace your exercise with a special medication, such as dobutamine, adenosine, or persantine that mimics exercise and puts stress on your heart for some time. You will receive the second radiotracer during the infusion of the drug.

4. Take Pictures of Your Heart

The pictures are taken about 15-45 minutes of getting the second tracer. The imaging session will take another half an hour and shows the stress distribution of blood flow throughout your heart muscle.

What Are the Possible Results of a Nuclear Stress Test?

You may already know the answer to your question "What is a nuclear stress test". Do you know how to interpret the results? Your doctor will talk to you and discuss the result after test. The test may show:

  • Normal blood flow at rest and during activity: It means your heart is functioning normally and you do not have coronary artery disease. Your doctor usually does not require further tests for confirmation.
  • Normal blood flow at rest but abnormality during activity: It means your heart muscle is not getting enough blood during physical activity, which could be due to blocked arteries.
  • Abnormal blood flow at rest and during activity: It means your heart never gets enough blood, which increases the risk of a heart attack. It usually means you have had a heart attack in the past or you have severe coronary artery disease.
  • Cold spots in images: These cold spots occur in areas where radioactive dye could not reach and this usually shows there is scar tissue. 
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