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Nuclear Stress Test


What you need to know about a nuclear stress test:

A nuclear stress test uses exercise or medicine to put stress on your heart. A radioactive liquid is used to help your heart show up better in pictures. Pictures of your heart are taken before and after you exercise or get medicine. The pictures help your healthcare provider compare blood flow to your heart muscle during rest and stress.

How to prepare for a nuclear stress test:

  • Tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant, think you are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. Also tell your healthcare provider if you have an allergy to any contrast liquid. Caffeine and nicotine can affect your test results. Do not have caffeine for at least 48 hours before your test. This includes foods, drinks, and medicine with caffeine. Do not smoke for 48 hours before your test or as directed.
  • Your healthcare provider may tell you not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the day of your test. He or she will tell you which medicines to take or not take on the day of your test. If you take a beta-blocker, you may be told to skip your dose on the day of your test. Remove all jewelry and metal before your test. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes if you will exercise during the test. If you have an inhaler, bring it with you. The test may take 2 to 4 hours.

What will happen during a nuclear stress test:

  • A healthcare provider will insert an IV and place electrodes (sticky patches) on your chest. Hair may be removed to help the patches stick to your skin. Your healthcare provider will attach a wire to each patch. The wires are connected to a monitor that will display the electrical activity of your heart.
  • Your healthcare provider will inject radioactive liquid into your IV. Your arm may feel cold when the liquid is injected. This should only last for a minute. You will rest for 20 to 40 minutes. Then your healthcare provider will take pictures of your heart. Keep your arms above your head and lie still while pictures are taken.
  • You will exercise or receive medicine to stress your heart. Your heart rate, heart rhythm, and blood pressure will be monitored closely during the test.
    • During a nuclear stress test with exercise you will walk on a treadmill or pedal on a stationary bicycle. The speed and resistance of the exercise machine may be increased over time. You will be asked to exercise for as long as you can. Your healthcare provider will tell you to stop exercising if you have shortness of breath, chest pain, or leg pain.
    • During a nuclear stress test with medicine your healthcare provider will inject medicine through your IV. The medicine will make your heart beat faster and work harder. It may make you feel anxious, dizzy, nauseated, shaky, or short of breath. You may also have mild chest pain. These symptoms usually stop when your healthcare provider stops giving you medicine. Tell your healthcare provider if you have severe chest pain or dizziness. Other medicine may be given to treat severe chest pain or dizziness.
  • Your healthcare provider will inject more radioactive liquid through your IV. You will rest for 20 to 40 minutes. Then your healthcare provider will take more pictures of your heart.

What will happen after a nuclear stress test:

A healthcare provider will remove your IV. You can usually return to work and your normal activities right away.

Risks of a nuclear stress test:

You may have an allergic reaction to the radioactive liquid. Medicine or exercise may cause an abnormal heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, or a heart attack. Medicine given to stress your heart may cause wheezing or shortness of breath.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest
    • You may also have any of the following:
      • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nausea or vomiting
      • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat

Call your doctor if:

  • You feel weak, dizzy, or faint.
  • You have nausea or are vomiting.
  • Your skin is itchy, swollen, or you have a rash.
  • You have pain, redness, or swelling in the area where the medicine was injected.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.


The radioactive liquid will be in your body for 24 to 36 hours after your test. You will need to do the following:

  • Drink plenty of liquids as directed. This will help flush the radioactive liquid out of your body. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after you urinate or have a bowel movement. The radioactive liquid leaves your body through your urine and bowel movements. Anyone who touches your urine or bowel movements should also wash his or her hands.
  • Limit time to cuddle and hug children under 3 years old. Limit close time for up to 18 hours after your test.
  • Do not breastfeed for 1 day after your test or as directed. Pump your breast milk and pour it out.

Heart-healthy tips:

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause heart and lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Create an exercise plan with your healthcare provider. Do not begin an exercise plan before you talk to your healthcare provider. Exercise helps to lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, talk to your healthcare provider about how to lose weight. A weight loss of 10% can improve your heart health.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your meal plan. Choose low-fat foods, such as skim or 1% fat milk, low-fat cheese and yogurt, fish, chicken (without skin), and lean meats. Eat two 4-ounce servings of fish high in omega-3 fats each week, such as salmon, fresh tuna, and herring. Do not eat foods that are high in sodium, such as canned foods, potato chips, salty snacks, and cold cuts. Put less table salt on your food.
    Sources of Omega 3
  • Limit or do not drink alcohol. Ask your healthcare provider if it is okay for you to drink alcohol and how much is okay to drink. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

Follow up with your doctor as directed:

Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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