Heart Tests: When Do You Need Them?
Heart tests can be very helpful in finding out what kind of heart problem you have and what treatment you need.
These tests help doctors find out what's causing new symptoms, such as discomfort in your chest, shortness of breath, or irregular heartbeats. They can also:
- Check your heart's electrical system.
- Check your pacemaker or other implanted device.
- See if your heart can handle more exercise.
- Check how well your heart valves are working.
But they may not be helpful if your doctor doesn't have a specific reason for the test—for example, when you don't have heart disease or your treatment for heart disease isn't causing any problems.
Sometimes doctors automatically schedule routine tests because they think that's what patients expect. But experts say that routine heart tests can be a waste of time and money.
Common heart tests that experts agree aren't needed as a matter of routine include:
- EKGs (electrocardiograms).
- Exercise treadmill tests, also called stress tests or exercise EKGs.
- Echos (echocardiograms).
- Coronary calcium scans.
Why might you need a test?
Doctors order heart tests for many reasons. For example, the test can find out what's causing symptoms like unexplained chest pain, shortness of breath, or irregular heartbeats.
Heart tests can be appropriate for a healthy person. This happens when a personal history or physical exam points to risk for a heart problem. For example, an athlete may be at risk for a heart problem associated with exercise. So a test such as an exercise electrocardiogram can be done before he or she takes part in competitive sports.
Here are some other reasons why you might need certain kinds of heart tests:
What the test does
When should you say "no" to a test?
Heart tests help a lot when your doctor is trying to find out what's wrong, which treatment to use, or how well a certain treatment is working.
But experts say that many tests aren't needed—even for heart patients—when everything is fine and you're just having a checkup. Sometimes doctors automatically schedule routine tests because they think that's what patients expect.
Here's what experts say about common heart tests that are sometimes ordered when they're not needed:
- Routine electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG): You may see ads telling you that "screening" EKGs are a good way to protect your health. "Screening" means having a test when you don't have any symptoms. If you are healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease, you can say "no" to this test. And even if you are a heart patient, a routine EKG just isn't needed as long as you have no new symptoms and you see your doctor several times a year.
- Exercise EKG: If you're healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease, you can say "no" to this test, often called a stress test or treadmill test. In younger people who don't have symptoms of heart disease, an exercise EKG can actually cause needless worry. This is because it can show that you have heart problems when you really don't.
- Echo: An echocardiogram isn't recommended as a routine test if you are healthy, have no heart problems, and have a low risk for heart disease. If you have coronary artery disease, you probably don't need this test unless you have new symptoms. It's not helpful for patients with mild heart murmurs. But if you have certain heart problems, like a valve disease or heart failure, your doctor needs to check your heart regularly with this test.
- Exercise echo: This test isn't recommended if you're healthy and have no symptoms of heart disease.
- Calcium scan: This test isn't recommended if you don't have risk factors for heart disease or you are at high risk of heart disease. In either case, the test won't tell you and your doctor anything you don't already know. But if your risk is medium, the test may tell you whether you need to take action to prevent a heart attack in the next few years.
How do you say "no" to your doctor?
The thought of saying "no" to a doctor makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But it's important to have a conversation about what the test is for. Asking a few questions is a great way to start that conversation. Try one or more of these questions:
- "This test probably costs a lot, and I'm trying to save money. Do you think the cost is worth it for me?"
- "How will this test help you treat my problem?"
- "Will this test give you information that will affect my treatment?"
- "How often is this test wrong? Could it say that I have a problem when I really don't?"
- "What will happen if I don't have this test?"
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
|Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.|
|Heart Disease Risk: Should I Have a Coronary Calcium Scan?|
Other Places To Get Help
|American Heart Association (AHA)|
|7272 Greenville Avenue|
|Dallas, TX 75231|
Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.
|National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)|
|P.O. Box 30105|
|Bethesda, MD 20824-0105|
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:
Other Works Consulted
- Cheitlin MD, et al. (2003). ACC/AHA/ASE 2003 guideline update for the clinical application of echocardiography: Summary article: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines
- Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
- Chou R, et al. (2011). Screening asymptomatic adults with resting or exercise electrocardiography: A review of the evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Annals of Internal Medicine, 155(6): 375–385.
- Daubert MA, et al. (2011). Computed tomography of the heart. In V Fuster et al., eds., Hurst’s The Heart, 13th ed., vol. 1, pp. 599–630. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Douglas PS, et al. (2008). ACCF/ASE/ACEP/AHA/ASNC/SCAI/SCCT/SCMR 2008 Appropriateness Criteria for Stress Echocardiography: A Report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation Appropriateness Criteria Task Force,
- Douglas PS, et al. (2010). ACCF/ASE/AHA/ASNC/HFSA/HRS/SCAI/SCCM/SCCT/SCMR 2011 appropriate use criteria for echocardiography. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 57(9): 1126–1166.
- Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Gibbons RJ, et al. (2002). ACC/AHA 2002 guideline update for exercise testing: Summary article. A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Committee to Update the 1997 Exercise Testing Guidelines). Circulation, 106(14): 1883–1892.
- Greenland P, et al. (2007). ACCF/AHA 2007 clinical expert consensus document on coronary artery calcium scoring by computed tomography in global cardiovascular risk assessment and in evaluation of patients with chest pain. Circulation, 115(3): 402–426.
- Greenland P, et al. (2010). 2010 ACCF/AHA guideline for assessment of cardiovascular risk in asymptomatic adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 56(25): e50–e103.
- Maron BJ, et al. (2007). Recommendations and considerations related to preparticipation screening for cardiovascular abnormalities in competitive athletes: 2007 Update: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism: Endorsed by the American College of Cardiology Foundation. Circulation, 115(12): 1643–1655.
- Taylor AJ, et al. (2010). ACCF/SCCT/ACR/AHA/ASE/ASNC/NASCI/SCAI/SCMR 2010 – Appropriate use criteria for cardiac computed tomography. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 56(22): 1864–1894.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Using nontraditional risk factors in coronary heart disease risk assessment. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspscoronaryhd.htm.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2012). Screening for coronary heart disease with electrocardiography: Recommendation statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsacad.htm.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD - Cardiology|
|Last Revised||April 5, 2012|
Last Revised: April 5, 2012
Author: Healthwise Staff
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