5 Heart Tests That Can Save Your Life

This is only a test. But it could be one of the most important tests you’ll ever take. If one of your heart’s many parts stops working properly—like the electrical system that makes it beat, the arteries that keep it nourished or the valves that help it pump blood—your doctor can use a variety of tests to determine the problem. These tests use different types of technology to measure your heart’s activity or “see” inside your body to watch it as it works, says Mary Norine Walsh, M.D., a cardiologist and spokeswoman with the American Heart Association (AHA). If you show signs of heart problems—such as chest pain, shortness of breath or lightheadedness—your doctor may recommend one or more of these common tests.

Abbreviated ECG or EKG, this test analyzes the electrical impulses that pass through your heart to make it beat properly. It results in a squiggly line on graph paper.

Why is it done? An electrocardiogram shows if you have an abnormality in your heartbeat (called arrhythmia) and can also show if you’ve had a heart attack.

How is it done?
With this painless procedure, the doctor, nurse or physician’s assistant places sticky patches on your chest, arms and legs that are connected by wires to a machine that reads your heart’s electrical activity. Your doctor then interprets the readout to learn how your heart is working.

Sound waves create moving pictures of your heart on a monitor.

Why is it done? An “echo” is probably the best method for looking into your heart valves, says David Gutterman, M.D., a cardiologist and chair of the American College of Chest Physicians Cardiovascular Medicine and Surgery Network. In addition to showing how well your heart valves are working, the test shows the size of your heart chambers and their level of performance. An echo is usually ordered to assess how well your heart is pumping blood. If your doctor hears a murmur in your heartbeat through a stethoscope, this test can identify its cause. Your doctor might also order an echo if you report symptoms such as shortness of breath or difficulty exercising.

How is it done?
A technician puts a gel on your chest, then moves a device called a transducer (like the kind used on pregnant women to create pictures of their unborn babies) over the area. The test is harmless and doesn’t hurt. According to the AHA, it usually takes less than 20 minutes.

Stress Test
An EKG or echocardiogram that checks your heart at rest and while it’s beating heavily.

Why is it done? Your heart may show signs that it’s not working properly when you’re under exertion, but symptoms may disappear while you’re at rest, Walsh says. A stress test gives your doctor an added level of information about your heart’s health.

How is it done? A two-step procedure, the stress test begins with an EKG or echo while your heart is at rest. Then, you spend about 10 minutes walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike to get it pumping faster. When you’re at about 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, the EKG is repeated, allowing your doctor to see how the heart is functioning when it’s pumping fast and furiously compared with at rest.

If arthritis or other conditions make you unable to exercise, the doctor can give you a medication that speeds up your heartbeat without exertion, Walsh says. People with possible heart ailments are often concerned that putting stress on  their hearts will cause a heart attack or other problem, but complications from stress tests are rare. Plus, Walsh adds, “I like to tell my patients that if something bad happens during a stress test, it means that something is wrong with your heart, and this is the best place to have something bad happen.”

Cardiac Catheterization
Allows your doctor to diagnose blockages in the arteries feeding your heart.

Why is it done? According to Gutterman, cardiac catheterization is the best test available to detect hardening of the arteries in your heart, which can cause a heart attack.

How is it done? A more complex procedure than the others, cardiac cath involves the insertion of a thin catheter into one of your blood -vessels—often an artery in your groin—until the tip is near your heart. While a machine takes “movies” of your heart using X-rays, the doctor injects a special fluid through the catheter that stands out on the X-ray. This reveals blockages in the arteries leading to your heart.

The test lasts about 45 minutes. Your doctor will give you medicine beforehand to sedate you and numb the spot where the tube is inserted. You will probably be asked to refrain from eating the night before the test and will have to lie flat for a few hours afterward, Gutterman says.

Coronary Calcium Scan
Creates a picture of your coronary arteries, which can show deposits of calcium in their walls.

Why is it done? If you have factors that increase your risk of  heart disease, such as diabetes, high cholesterol or blood -pressure, or a family history of heart disease, this can be a good way to determine your level of risk, Walsh says. Calcium is an ingredient in plaque, and this scan provides evidence that you have plaque buildups in your arteries. However, insurance companies generally don’t cover this test, so most people pay for it out of pocket.

How is it done? You lie on a table with electrodes placed on your chest to measure your heartbeat, and the table moves through a CT scanner, a machine that uses X-rays to make 3-D images of your heart. Quick and painless, it simply requires that you hold your breath for a few seconds at a time. 

The Tests You Should Have Often
Regardless of your risk for heart disease, there are two measures of heart health that you should have tested on a regular basis:

  • Your cholesterol: Be aware of your LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind), your HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) and your triglycerides. These are measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood, or mg/dL. According to the American Heart Association, your LDL should be below 100 mg/dL, your HDL should be above 40 mg/dL, and your triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL. 
  • Your blood pressure: Your blood pressure is measured using two numbers. According to the National Institutes of Health, your blood pressure should -ideally be lower than 120/80. Have a doctor or nurse check yours at least every two years—or more frequently if it’s high. 

From diagnosing heart disease to treating cardiovascular conditions such as cardiomyopathy, blocked arteries or arrhythmia, Gwinnett Medical Center has provided expert care for cardiovascular diseases in our community for more than 20 years.

Our state-of-the-art facility, Strickland Heart Center,  features the most advanced operating rooms and cardiac catheterization laboratories in the Atlanta area. It’s also home to a comprehensive array of advanced cardiovascular services, including open heart surgery.


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