What is a nuclear stress test? | cbdMD - cbdMD Blog

What is a nuclear stress test?

What is a nuclear stress test?

A nuclear stress test would accurately be described as a study aimed at measuring whether the blood flow to your heart muscle is normal or abnormal.

There is a similar stress-the-heart test called an echocardiogram (ECG), which involves an ultrasound. This less invasive method involves projecting a beam through the front of the chest wall and lungs, providing an image of the heart.

Both the ECG and nuclear stress tests are done during exercise and while at rest, because comparing active blood-pumping needs a baseline.

Nuclear stress test cost

Although sometimes vital to optimal health, a nuclear stress test – also referred to as the thallium stress test, the myocardial perfusion scan, or radionuclide test – can cost upwards of $630.

As a matter of time commitment, the nuclear stress test takes between three and four hours.

What is involved in a nuclear stress test?

The nuclear study utilizes a radioactive tracer to create an image of how well blood is reaching your heart muscle.

The tracer is injected when you’ve reached a desired heart rate during exercise, and the doctor looks at a gamma-ray camera image. A nuclear stress test shows the size of the heart’s chambers, how well the heart is pumping blood, and whether the heart has any damaged or dead muscle.

The fact remains that a nuclear stress test is the most accurate non-invasive method for diagnosing coronary artery blockages. Just about everyone knows someone, including themselves, who had to take it as part of an insurance checkup.

These tests are often done on people with physical problems, and establishing a baseline of ‘how bad is bad’ is necessary. Complications are rare in stress tests, and as a procedure, the process is about as complex as falling off a log.

No chocolate, cigarettes, caffeine or usual meds that might alter or excite body activities beforehand, then you exercise until your heart rate hits a set target.

If symptoms develop that don’t allow you to continue – like gasping heavily for air or a leg that hurts to walk – Plan B involves the doctor injecting something that makes your heart *think* its being stressed.

The injection of a radioactive tracer is the all-important part in a nuclear stress test.

Whether treatment consists of medication, or possibly the placement of a stent to keep an artery open, a nuclear stress test helps to judge how effective previous therapy has been.

Seeing how the body has progressed – even if things have gone the wrong direction – provides a base for advice about patient activities, exercise, or what other procedures need to be considered going forward.


If both the ‘at rest’ and exercise images show an area with no visible signs of the injected radioactive element, that’s more than just poor blood flow, it indicates a prior heart attack has occurred.

Maybe that 3 a.m. discomfort after tacos grande night wasn’t just jalapenos or a burrito kicking at your guts, right?

What conditions require a nuclear stress test?

Because a nuclear stress test allows you to get a definitive picture of your heart efficiency, there are several preliminary conditions that may require the use of a nuclear stress test.

Some of the most common conditions include:

  • Blockage

    When an area of poor blood flow is identified during stress testing that is not present during rest, a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries is likely indicated. Consider yourself lucky if a stress test only leaves you a little winded.

  • Coronary artery disease

    Your coronary arteries are the major blood vessels that supply your heart with the necessary blood, oxygen, and nutrients to remain healthy. This disease develops when these arteries become damaged, usually due to plaque buildup.

  • Arrhythmias

    These occur when the electrical signals to the heart that coordinate heartbeats aren’t working properly, with the heart beating too fast, too slowly, too early, or irregularly.

    Many heart arrhythmias are harmless, but if they are particularly abnormal, or result from a weak or damaged heart, arrhythmias can cause potentially fatal symptoms.

  • Heart Attack

    A heart attack occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a particular section of the heart becomes blocked and the heart can’t get oxygen. If the blood flow is not restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die.

Side effects of a nuclear stress test

Although a nuclear stress test is generally safe under most conditions, some complications and side effects may result:

  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased anxiety
  • Allergic reaction to dye
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

According to the American College of Cardiology, heart disease is the most common condition amongst older adults. It’s the leading cause of death, and more than half of all American adults in the 65-and older age group suffer from high blood pressure.

blood pressure test

“The JNC 8 guidelines (Eighth Joint National Committee) support what we geriatricians have believed for quite some time: Many older adults are taking too much blood pressure medication,” says Dr. Leslie Kernisan, M.D., M.P.H.

Unnecessary BP medications can cause risky side effects in seniors, and unfortunately, arthritis and chronic pain are also common problems for most seniors. Approximately 75–85% of seniors suffer from these daily health factors.

Health issues often start stacking up later in life, often requiring multiple medications. Because of osteoporosis, seniors bones experience a loss of vital minerals and become fragile and brittle, making them more prone to breaking.

Lowering a patient’s blood pressure and widening the blood vessels increases flow, and helps to bring the damage caused by high blood pressure under control. That’s as good an outcome for a senior as anyone taking a nuclear stress test can expect.

In geriatrics, the challenge is balancing the potential benefits of a medication with the likely burdens and risks. As more clinical trials are conducted with natural alternatives, the evidence of efficacy – the ability to produce a desired effect – will only become more evident.

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