What is a nuclear stress test?
A nuclear stress test is a noninvasive imaging test that uses a tiny amount of radioactive material, known as a tracer. The tracer, which is injected into your arm, travels to your heart. The tracer emits a certain type of energy called gamma rays that can be detected by a special camera. The information is processed and reconstructed by computers to produce a clear picture of your heart. These images can show damage to the heart muscle and blood flow problems. There are many different names for this test. It is sometimes called a thallium test or a sestamibi test—these are the two most common tracers used—or your doctor may refer to it as radionuclide imaging, SPECT (which stands for single photon emission computed tomography), or myocardial perfusion imaging.
Some heart problems only show up when the heart is working hard (or stressed). A nuclear stress test is done while you exercise to see if there are any areas of your heart that do not get enough blood and oxygen when under stress. In women unable to exercise, a nuclear stress test may be performed using chemicals that mimic the effect of exercise on the heart.
Who might have a nuclear stress test?
Nuclear stress tests are generally used in women with symptoms suggestive of heart disease such as chest pain or shortness of breath, or those at risk for heart disease who had a previous abnormal test such as an ECG.
Who should not have a nuclear stress test?
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should not have any kind of radiation procedure. If you have been diagnosed with inflammation of the heart muscle ( myocarditis), recent lung infection, a birth defect causing a pinched or narrow aorta, severe narrowing of the aortic valve, or severe heart failure, you should also not have a nuclear stress test.