The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Health & Fitness

September 20, 2012

Medical Edge: For many, treadmill stress test is thing of the past

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I just read that the treadmill stress test is no longer recommended. What’s the reasoning behind this? I’ve had the test before, and it seems like a good way to find heart problems.

ANSWER: A treadmill stress test can be helpful if a doctor suspects someone has heart problems, or if a person is at high risk for heart disease. However, this test is no longer recommended for people at low risk for heart disease who do not have symptoms. For that group, the test is not needed because assessing risk factors such as age, smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and family history has been shown to be nearly as effective in identifying an individual’s potential for heart disease.

A treadmill stress test gathers information about how well your heart works as you exercise. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster than it does during most daily activities, the test may be able to reveal problems within your heart that might not be noticeable otherwise.

During the stress test, you walk on a treadmill while an electrocardiogram, or ECG, records the electrical signals that trigger your heartbeats. Before you start, sticky patches — called electrodes — are placed on your chest, legs and arms. They’re connected by wires to the ECG machine. A blood pressure cuff is placed on your arm to check your blood pressure during the test.

You start slowly. As the test progresses, the speed and incline of the treadmill increases. The goal is to have your heart work hard for about eight to 12 minutes to thoroughly monitor its function. You continue exercising until you develop symptoms that do not allow you to continue. Occasionally your doctor may stop the test sooner for other reasons.

A common reason doctors use an exercise stress test is to look for coronary artery disease. In this condition, the arteries that deliver blood to the heart muscle are narrowed or completely blocked. Coronary artery disease is the most common cause of death in the United States. Many patients with coronary artery disease have symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest discomfort, during physical activity. But a large number of people who have this disease do not have any symptoms, and their first sign of a problem is a heart attack.

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