What to expect during an exercise stress test

Although no longer routine, this test is still a common, safe way to assess people with heart disease symptoms.

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That chest discomfort you felt during your evening walk disappeared once you got back home. But a week later, you're carrying a laundry basket upstairs and the pain returns, although only briefly. It's time to call your doctor to discuss these symptoms — and possibly undergo an evaluation for coronary disease.

One test you may need is an exercise stress test, also called a treadmill test. As recently as a decade or so ago, doctors ordered these tests as part of a routine check-up in middle-aged and older men, regardless of their symptoms. Today, they're done mainly in people with symptoms that suggest heart disease, says Dr. Hicham Skali, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "In general, that means stable angina, which refers to chest pain that occurs in predictable patterns during exercise or other exertion," he says. Angina occurs when the heart muscle isn't getting enough blood, which is more likely during physical activity.

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