What is a Nuclear Stress Test?


If your doctor ordered a nuclear stress test, you might have a lot of questions buzzing around your head. Why do you need it? What does it entail? Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the test and how you can prepare for your appointment.

What Is a Nuclear Stress Test Procedure?

A nuclear stress test is one of several types of stress tests that uses a radiotracer to help the doctor determine the health of your heart and any risk of heart attack or other cardiac events. In many cases, a nuclear stress test is often performed following a standard exercise test to get more detailed information on the heart. During a nuclear stress test, the doctor injects a small amount of a radioactive substance to help problem areas appear more clearly.

Following this, you will lie down for approximately 15 to 45 minutes. A special camera will scan your heart to create pictures that show how the blood circulates through the body and into your heart. Learning more about a nuclear stress test can help you prepare for your procedure.

What Is Involved In a Nuclear Stress Test Procedure?

A nuclear stress test uses imaging technology with small amounts of radioactive material and an exercise stress test to detect, diagnose and monitor various heart conditions. There are multiple components to a nuclear stress test, from the radiotracer to the imaging machine, that helps your doctor obtain a better look at your heart.

The nuclear stress test procedure can measure the blood flow during activity and while at rest to highlight poor circulation or potential areas of damage in the heart. Radiotracers used during a nuclear stress test can also help a physician determine if you may be at risk for a heart attack or other cardiac event. A nuclear stress test can provide more detailed results than a standard exercise stress test.

Nuclear stress tests are performed using a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) or positron emission technology (PET) scanner. Two sets of images are taken of your heart during a nuclear stress test. Your radiologist will take one image at rest and one after exercise. Some patients may not be able to exercise for the test. A technician can administer a drug intravenously (IV) for these patients to mimic the effects of exercise and blood flow to your heart.

Why Is My Doctor Recommending a Nuclear Stress Test?

Nuclear stress tests provide valuable information on the health of your heart. Some of the information a nuclear stress test determines is the size of the heart chambers, potential damage to the heart and how well the heart is pumping blood. Additionally, a physician may determine if there is any narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries.

Sometimes, a nuclear stress test is performed to determine if current treatment is effective or if a patient may be suitable for a cardiac rehabilitation program. Some of the most common conditions that doctors diagnose from a nuclear stress test include:


  • Heart attack: Heart attacks occur commonly, with a heart attack happening roughly every 40 seconds in the United States. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, often caused by a buildup of cholesterol, fat or other substances. In some cases, plaque may rupture and form a blockage or clot that inhibits blood flow, damaging or destroying a part of the heart. Heart attacks, also known as myocardial infarctions, can be fatal and require prompt medical attention.
  • Heart failure: Heart failure is a chronic condition that progresses over time where the heart can no longer effectively pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for oxygen and blood. In simple terms, heart failure is when the heart cannot effectively keep up with the work it needs to perform. To make up for this, the heart may enlarge, develop more muscle mass or pump faster. Approximately 6.2 million adults have heart failure in the United States.
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): CAD is the most common form of heart disease in the United States. CAD, also known as ischemic heart disease or coronary heart disease, occurs when plaque builds up within the walls of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Plaque develops as a result of cholesterol and other substances building up and narrowing the artery. A narrow artery is less effective at allowing for proper blood flow.

Is a Nuclear Stress Test Safe?

Before a test, some patients may be curious about how safe a nuclear stress test is. A nuclear stress test is a safe, effective procedure that can provide physicians with important information about the health of your heart. For most patients, there is little to no risk of any complications. While this procedure is very safe, there is a small risk of complications in any medical procedure or test.

Low blood pressure is a common complication that may occur during or following exercise, potentially making a person feel faint, weak or dizzy. Some patients may also notice slight chest pain during a nuclear stress test, as well as shortness of breath, headache, nausea or anxiety surrounding the test itself. These sensations typically go away when you stop exercising.

While most nuclear stress test complications are very mild, some patients may experience more severe complications, such as arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms. An irregular heartbeat often improves after you stop exercising or the medication works its way through your system. Life-threatening arrhythmias don’t occur often. Additionally, some patients may experience a heart attack during a nuclear stress test in extremely rare cases.

How to Prepare for a Nuclear Stress Test

Before a nuclear stress test, your physician will provide you with detailed instructions to follow before your procedure. In some cases, your physician may ask you to refrain from drinking or eating for a certain period before your nuclear stress test. Additionally, you will also need to stop smoking leading up to your nuclear stress test.

Your physician may recommend avoiding coffee and large amounts of caffeine the day before your test. If you regularly take any over-the-counter or prescription medication, you should check with your physician to see if they may interfere with any aspects of the nuclear stress test. For patients who use an inhaler, you should bring it to your test.

On the day of your nuclear stress test, you should wear comfortable walking shoes and clothes. Before your appointment, you will want to avoid applying any lotions or creams to the skin.  In some cases, your physician may recommend temporarily discontinuing certain medicine before your nuclear stress test to reduce the risk of potential complications.

Schedule Your Nuclear Stress Test

At Impression Imaging, our goal is to provide our patients with the highest level of care possible and offer compassionate and convenient service using innovative technology and equipment. Our radiologists confer with your physicians to ensure they get all the essential information from your test to assist in your care. We are proud to offer CT scansCTA scansPET scansnuclear medicine and more. To get started with our imaging services, contact us online today or call 954-580-2780.


Meet Our Radiologists

Michael Fagian, MD

Michael Fagien, MD

Nuclear Radiologist

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David Clayman, MD

David Clayman, M.D.

Neuro Radiologist

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