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What is nuclear heart testing? — Nuclear heart testing is a way for doctors to check how healthy your heart is. A nuclear heart test is an imaging test that can show:
●How much blood flows to your heart muscle
●How well your heart pumps blood to the rest of your body
Usually, people have a test called a "stress test" along with a nuclear heart test. A stress test measures how well the heart works when it is pumping very fast. When the heart pumps fast, it needs more blood. A nuclear heart test shows if the heart gets enough blood during these times. When a stress test is done with a nuclear heart test, it's called a "nuclear stress test." Doctors also use the term "myocardial perfusion."
Why might my doctor order a nuclear heart test? — Your doctor might order a nuclear heart test or a nuclear stress test to:
●Check if your heart muscle is getting enough blood
●Look for certain heart conditions, or check on a known heart condition
●Check your heart after a heart attack or heart surgery
●See how well your heart pumps blood to the rest of your body
How do I prepare for a nuclear heart test? — The doctor or nurse will tell you if you need to do anything special to prepare.
Before the test, your doctor will:
●Do an exam
●Ask about all of the medicines you take – They might have you stop or change some of your medicines before the test.
●Tell you when to stop eating and drinking before your test – They might also ask you not to drink anything that has caffeine in it for 24 hours beforehand.
If you are pregnant, let your doctor know before you have a nuclear heart test. They might suggest a different test or delay the nuclear heart test until after you give birth.
What happens during a nuclear heart test? — First, the doctor, nurse, or technician will do a test called an "electrocardiogram" ("ECG"). An ECG records your heart rate and rhythm by measuring the electrical activity in your heart (figure 1).
Then, the doctor, nurse, or technician will have you lie down on a table. They will put an IV (needle) in your arm and put a radioactive substance, called a "tracer," into the IV. The tracer will travel through your blood to your heart. A camera outside of your body will record the tracer's signals. A computer will use these signals to create images of blood flowing to and through your heart.
If you have a nuclear stress test, you will usually have 1 set of pictures done while you rest, and 1 set done when your heart is pumping fast. Some people might only have the pictures done once, when the heart is pumping fast. To "stress" your heart and raise your heart rate, the doctor will do 1 of the following:
●Have you run or walk on a treadmill (figure 2)
●Have you pedal a stationary bike – This is an exercise bike that doesn't move, except for the pedals.
●Give you medicine to make your heart pump faster – People who can't exercise can get medicine instead.
After the stress test, the doctor will take another set of pictures. That way, they can compare the results from the 2 different times.
Some nuclear heart tests do not require exercise. Pictures will only be taken while you rest.
What happens after a nuclear heart test? — After the test, your doctor or nurse will review the pictures and tell you what the results mean. If there is a problem or if you need treatment, they will discuss your options with you.
What are the risks of nuclear heart tests? — Nuclear heart tests do involve a small amount of radiation. Too much radiation can cause serious health problems, like cancer. The amount of radiation in a single nuclear heart test will not cause any long-term problems in most people. But your doctor should talk with you about the possible long-term side effects of radiation.
Other risks can include:
●Pain or redness where the IV went into your arm
●Side effects from the stress test – When a person's heart pumps very fast, they can get symptoms. These might include chest pain, trouble breathing, abnormal heartbeat, or feeling dizzy or faint.
Patient education: Chest pain (The Basics)
Patient education: Heart attack (The Basics)
Patient education: Coronary artery disease (The Basics)
Patient education: Heart failure (The Basics)
Patient education: ECG and stress test (The Basics)
Patient education: Echocardiogram (The Basics)
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