Diagnostic Tests

The ankle-brachial index test is a quick, noninvasive way to check your risk of peripheral artery disease (PAD). The ankle-brachial index test compares your blood pressure measured at your ankle with your blood pressure measured at your arm. A low ankle-brachial index number can indicate narrowing or blockage of the arteries in your legs, increasing your risk of circulatory problems, and possibly causing heart disease or stroke.

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A blood pressure test measures the pressure in your arteries as your heart pumps. You might have a blood pressure test as a part of a routine doctor’s appointment or as a screening for high blood pressure (hypertension). Many people, such as those with high blood pressure, do their own blood pressure tests at home so that they can better track their health. You may have more frequent blood pressure tests if you’ve been diagnosed with elevated blood pressure, high blood pressure (hypertension) or low blood pressure (hypotension).

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Cardiac catheterization (kath-uh-tur-ih-ZAY-shun) is a procedure used to diagnose and treat cardiovascular conditions. During cardiac catheterization, a long thin tube called a catheter is inserted in an artery or vein in your groin, neck or arm and threaded through your blood vessels to your heart. Using this catheter, doctors can then do diagnostic tests as part of a cardiac catheterization. Some heart disease treatments, such as coronary angioplasty, also are done using cardiac catheterization. Usually, you’ll be awake during cardiac catheterization, but given medications to help you relax. Recovery time for a cardiac catheterization is quick, and there’s a low risk of complications.

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A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, shows how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within your heart. A stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill while your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored. Your doctor may recommend a stress test if you have signs or symptoms of coronary artery disease or an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). The test may also guide treatment decisions, measure the effectiveness of treatment or determine the severity if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition.

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Carotid (kuh-ROT-id) ultrasound is a safe, painless procedure that uses sound waves to examine the blood flow through the carotid arteries. Your two carotid arteries are located on each side of your neck. They deliver blood from your heart to your brain. Carotid ultrasound tests for blocked or narrowed carotid arteries, which can increase the risk of stroke. The results can help your doctor determine a treatment to lower your stroke risk.

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A heart scan, also known as a coronary calcium scan, is a specialized X-ray test that provides pictures of your heart that can enable your doctor to detect and measure calcium-containing plaque in the arteries. The measurement of calcified plaque with a heart scan may enable your doctor to identify possible coronary artery disease before you have signs and symptoms.

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A computerized tomography (CT) coronary angiogram is an imaging test that looks at the arteries that supply blood to your heart. It might be used to diagnose the cause of chest pain or other symptoms. A CT coronary angiogram relies on a powerful X-ray machine to produce images of your heart and its blood vessels. These tests are noninvasive and don’t require recovery time. Coronary CT angiograms are increasingly an option for people with a variety of heart conditions.

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An echocardiogram uses sound waves to produce images of your heart. This commonly used test allows your doctor to see your heart beating and pumping blood. Your doctor can use the images from an echocardiogram to identify heart disease.

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An electrocardiogram records the electrical signals in your heart. It’s a common test used to detect heart problems and monitor the heart’s status in many situations. Electrocardiograms — also called ECGs or EKGs — are often done in a doctor’s office, a clinic or a hospital room. An ECG is a noninvasive, painless test with quick results. During an ECG, sensors (electrodes) that can detect the electrical activity of your heart are attached to your chest and sometimes your limbs. These sensors are usually left on for just a few minutes.

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An electrophysiology (EP) study is a test used to understand and map the electrical activity within your heart. An EP study may be recommended in people with heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) and other heart problems to understand the exact cause and determine which treatment is most likely to be effective. Doctors also use EP studies to predict the risk of sudden cardiac death in certain situations. An EP study involves placing diagnostic catheters within your heart and running specialized tests to map the electrical currents. EP studies are done in the hospital and carry a small risk of serious complications.

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An implantable loop recorder is a type of heart-monitoring device that records your heart rhythm continuously for up to three years. It records the electrical signals of your heart and allows remote monitoring by way of a small device inserted just beneath the skin of the chest.

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A monitor is a small, wearable device that keeps track of your heart rhythm. Your doctor may want you to wear a monitor for one to seven days. During that time, the device records all of your heartbeats.

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A nuclear test uses radioactive dye and an imaging machine to create pictures showing the blood flow to your heart. The test measures blood flow while you are at rest and are exerting yourself, showing areas with poor blood flow or damage in your heart. The test usually involves injecting radioactive dye, then taking two sets of images of your heart — one while you’re at rest and another after exertion.

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Pulse oximetry is a quick and painless test used to measure the level of oxygen in your blood. In this test, a clip is placed on a body part, such as a finger, to measure the oxygen-rich blood that has reached that part of the body.

A home sleep apnea test is a sleep study tool that is used for the diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea. Most devices are portable – about the size of a telephone handset. The patient will apply sensors to the body before sleep time and sleeps with the equipment for 1 – 2 nights. Once the equipment is returned the data is downloaded and processed for interpretation by a sleep physician.

A tilt table test is used to evaluate the cause of unexplained fainting (syncope). Your doctor might recommend a tilt table test if you have repeated, unexplained episodes of lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting. The test can help determine if the cause is related to your heart rate or blood pressure.

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If it’s difficult to get a clear picture of your heart with a standard echocardiogram or if there is reason to see the heart and valves in more detail, your doctor may recommend a transesophageal echocardiogram. In this procedure, a flexible tube containing a transducer is guided down your throat and into your esophagus, which connects your mouth to your stomach. From there, the transducer can be positioned to obtain more-detailed images of your heart. Your throat will be numbed, and you’ll have medications to help you relax during a transesophageal echocardiogram.

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Vascular ultrasounds produce images that uses high-frequency sound waves to view the arteries or veins in your arms or legs.

Venography is used to study how blood flows through your veins. In this test, a special dye is injected into a vein with a needle or catheter prior to having an X-ray. As the dye flows through your veins, X-rays are taken. This test takes several minutes, and you can go home the same day.