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Heart Tests: When Do You Need Them? - Topic Overview

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:

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:

Other reasons for heart tests

Heart test

What the test does

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG):Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG):

  • Checks your heart's electrical system and heart rhythm
  • Finds out if chest pain is caused by a heart attack or angina
  • Checks how well your pacemaker or other implanted device is working

Exercise EKGExercise EKG:

  • Checks for abnormal changes in your heart during exercise
  • Helps find the cause of unexplained chest pain
  • Makes sure your heart is healthy enough for physical activity, especially when you have not been physically active for a while and want to start a new exercise program
  • Sees how well you can handle exercise after you have had a heart attack or heart surgery

EchocardiogramEchocardiogram:

  • Helps find the cause of unexplained chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Checks for signs of diseases that affect the walls and chambers of the heart
  • Finds out how well your heart is pumping blood
  • Regularly checks to see how your heart valves are working if you have a valve disease or you have an artificial valve

Coronary calcium scanCoronary calcium scan:

  • Helps your doctor find out your risk for a heart attack, especially when you are at medium risk
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