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When Should You Get a Heart Test?

May 11, 2017

Doctor examining a patient
Technology plays an important role in our health. Without it, we wouldn’t have the ability to monitor and catch many conditions. However, extensive testing isn’t always the right choice, especially for your heart. How do you know when you should get a heart test and when watchful waiting is best?

If you have a high risk of developing heart disease or are experiencing any symptoms, such as chest pain, getting the right tests at the right time could be lifesaving. Yet heart tests are expensive, occasionally invasive and risky, and can lead to false alarms and more unnecessary tests. So it’s best to use a degree of caution when deciding with your doctor whether further testing is the best course of action for your health.

First, let’s take a closer look at the different types of heart tests available.

Simple blood work and blood pressure check

These simple and non-invasive tests can provide insight into your cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels, which can be a good starting point for your doctor when analyzing your heart health. Since these tests only require minimal lab work, they often are included as part of a yearly physical.

EKG or ECG

This test is also quite common and non-invasive. By attaching sensors to your chest, a doctor can determine if your heart rhythms are normal. Often, an EKG is combined with an exercise stress test, especially if the patient reports chest pain or tightness during periods of exertion.

CT angiography

If an EKG and stress test is inconclusive, your doctor may order a CT angiography, which produces a 3D image of your coronary arteries. This can help identify the presence of any plaque in your arteries and determine the severity of any narrowing.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm test

This ultrasound test looks for potential ballooning in your arteries. While it can be performed on both men women, an abdominal aortic aneurysm test is most common for men over age 65 who have a history of smoking.

Peripheral artery disease test

Frequent cramping in your legs, especially when exercising, could indicate you have blocked arteries and could be suffering from peripheral artery disease. This test compares the blood pressure in your arms and legs to determine the problem.

Carotid artery imaging

This test is an ultrasound of the arteries in your neck, which can help determine your risk of having a stroke. This test typically is reserved for people who are believed to be at risk of a stroke or already have suffered a stroke or mini stroke.

Nuclear perfusion studies

By injecting a radioactive substance into your veins, images from this test can show areas of your arteries that may have abnormal blood flow or blockages.

How do you know which of these tests you need and when?

Unfortunately, that answer is something you and your doctor must determine together. Since the need for these tests is so individualized, the best thing you can do to ensure you’re getting the right testing when you need it is to find a doctor you trust and see him or her regularly.

If your doctor suggests one of these heart tests, make sure you ask enough questions to adequately understand their decision. For instance:

  • What will the results of this test show us?
  • Why are you recommending this specific test?
  • Are there any alternatives I should consider?
  • How does the procedure work?

You and your doctor will stay on the same page when you have as much information as possible prior to testing.

Know Your Numbers