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Heart Tests: When Do You Need Them?

Overview

How can tests for your heart help you?

Heart tests can help your doctor find out if you have or are at risk for a heart problem and what treatment you might need. The tests help doctors find out what's causing new symptoms, such as discomfort in your chest, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeats.

The tests can also help your doctor:

  • Check your heart's electrical system.
  • Check your pacemaker or other implanted device.
  • See if your heart can handle more exercise.
  • Check how well your heart valves are working.
  • Look for problems with the structure of your heart.

Even if you feel healthy, your doctor may suggest a heart test. For example, your physical exam or something in your health history may make the doctor think that you're at risk for a heart problem.

What are some types of tests for your heart?

There are many heart tests. Many of them provide still or moving images of your heart and blood vessels. Heart tests can be non-invasive or invasive.

Non-invasive tests

In a non-invasive test, the doctor does not insert a device into your body for the test. You may need an injection of a medicine during the test. Many of these tests are imaging tests that provide still or moving pictures of your heart. Non-invasive tests include:

Cardiac blood pool scan.
  • Makes pictures of the heart
  • Shows how well your heart is pumping blood to your body
  • Checks the size of heart chambers
  • Checks for problems with blood flow or structure of the heart
Cardiac CT scan.
  • Makes pictures of the heart and blood vessels
  • Checks for coronary artery disease
  • Checks for problems with blood vessels and heart valves
  • Checks for problems with the structure of the heart
Cardiac MRI scan.
  • Makes still pictures and moving pictures of the heart
  • Checks the pumping action of the heart
  • Checks for problems with the structure of the heart
Cardiac perfusion scan.
  • Makes pictures of blood flow to the heart muscle
  • Checks for coronary artery disease
  • Checks for damage caused by a heart attack
Coronary calcium scan.
  • Makes pictures of the walls of coronary arteries
  • Checks for calcium in coronary arteries
  • Helps your doctor find out your risk for a heart attack, especially when you are at medium risk
Echocardiogram.
  • Makes moving pictures of the heart
  • Helps find the cause of unexplained chest pain or pressure, or shortness of breath
  • Checks for signs of diseases that affect the walls and chambers of the heart
  • Checks how well your heart is pumping blood
  • Checks how well valves are working
Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG).
  • Checks your heart's electrical system and heart rhythm
  • Finds out if chest pain or pressure is caused by a heart attack or angina
  • Checks how well your pacemaker or other implanted device is working
Exercise EKG.
  • Checks for abnormal changes in your heart during exercise
  • Helps find the cause of unexplained chest pain or pressure
  • Makes sure your heart is healthy enough for physical activity

Invasive tests

Invasive tests require a doctor to insert a tube called a catheter into blood vessels in your body. An example of an invasive test is:

Cardiac catheterization.
  • Makes moving pictures of blood flow in the heart
  • Checks blood flow and blood pressure in the chambers of the heart
  • Checks how well the heart valves work
  • Checks for problems in the structure of the heart
  • Checks how well the walls of the heart move

When should you say no to a test?

Heart tests help a lot when your doctor is trying to find out what's wrong, which treatment to use, or how well a certain treatment is working.

But experts say that sometimes heart tests aren't needed—even for people who have a heart problem. It may be okay to not have a test when everything is fine and you're just having a checkup. A test may not be helpful if your doctor doesn't have a specific reason for the test—for example, when you don't have coronary artery disease (also called heart disease) or your treatment for heart disease does not need to change.

Here's what experts say about common heart tests that are sometimes ordered when they're not needed:

Routine electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG).

You may see ads telling you that screening EKGs are a good way to protect your health. "Screening" means having a test when you don't have any symptoms. If you are healthy, have a low risk of heart disease, and have no symptoms of heart disease, you can say "no" to this test. And even if you have heart disease, a routine EKG isn't needed as long as you have no new symptoms and you see your doctor regularly.

Exercise EKG.

If you're healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease, you can say "no" to this test. In younger people who don't have symptoms of heart disease, an exercise EKG can actually cause worry. This is because it can show that you have heart problems when you really don't. This test is also called a stress test or treadmill test.

Echocardiogram.

An echocardiogram isn't recommended as a routine test if you are healthy, have no heart problems, and have a low risk for heart disease. If you have coronary artery disease, you probably don't need this test unless you have new symptoms. But if you have certain heart problems, like a valve disease or heart failure, your doctor needs to check your heart regularly with this test.

Exercise echocardiogram.

This test isn't recommended if you're healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease.

Imaging tests.

An imaging test is not recommended before a non-heart surgery that has a low risk of problems. An example of an imaging test is a cardiac perfusion scan. An example of a low-risk non-heart surgery is a cataract surgery.

Coronary calcium scan.

This test isn't recommended if you don't have risk factors for heart disease or if you are at high risk of heart disease. In either case, the test won't tell you and your doctor anything you don't already know.

You can help decide if a test is right for you. Talk with your doctor to make that decision.

Credits

Current as of: September 7, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board:
Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Robert A. Kloner MD, PhD - Cardiology

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