Home > Health Library > 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:
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:
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
Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG):
Coronary calcium scan:
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:
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:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
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.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
(NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing
Other Works Consulted
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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.
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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.
April 5, 2012
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD - Cardiology
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