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Nuclear Stress Test

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What do I 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.

Why may I need a nuclear stress test?

  • Find the cause of chest pain, dizziness, tiredness, or trouble breathing
  • Monitor or check for heart disease or an abnormal heartbeat
  • Check for heart damage after a heart attack
  • Check blood flow to your heart after heart surgery

How do I 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.

What are the 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.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.