What Is a Nuclear Stress Test?

What to expect when undergoing this test

A nuclear stress test is an imaging test that uses a small amount of radioactive material called a "tracer" to create an image of your heart. This test can help identify a heart problem that can only be seen when you are exercising.

When you exercise, your heart is said to be under stress. This is why it is called a "stress test."

The nuclear stress test is most often used to look for blockages. Blockages can happen if you have coronary artery disease (CAD), a condition where fatty deposits form in the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart. If you have blockages, a nuclear stress test can also help your provider see how bad they are.

This article discusses the nuclear stress test, its purpose, and the potential risks. It will also help you prepare for the test and know what to expect during it and after.

what to expect during a nuclear stress test

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Purpose of the Nuclear Stress Test

A nuclear stress test helps your healthcare provider visualize what is happening in your heart when you exercise. A nuclear stress test is different than a regular stress test. A regular stress test uses an ECG to record your heart rate and rhythm, while a nuclear stress test captures images of your heart.

Your provider may order a nuclear stress test if you have certain symptoms of CAD, such as:

The test can also find blockages and help your provider judge how bad they are.

If you already have been diagnosed with CAD, your provider might want you to have the test because the results can help them come up with a treatment plan for you.

If you are being treated for CAD, the test can help your provider understand how well your treatment is working. It will also help your provider decide what kinds of daily activities and exercise you should be doing.

The nuclear stress test does not involve inserting medical instruments into your body. This means it is non-invasive.

The test is thought to be the most accurate and non-invasive way to diagnose coronary artery blockages.

CAD can also be diagnosed with an invasive test called cardiac catheterization—a procedure where a tube called a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the heart.

If you can have a nuclear stress test, you may not need to have cardiac catheterization.

What The Test Is Looking For

The nuclear stress test creates two images. The first shows how blood flows to your heart when you are resting. The second shows the blood flow during exercise.

The test can show:

  • The presence, location, and size of a prior heart attack
  • The presence, location, and size of blockages that are serious enough to affect blood flow during exercise

The images can tell your provider different things about your heart health, including:

  • A normal test result will show blood being evenly distributed to the heart in both images.
  • If both images show a fixed patch of poor blood flow, that means the person had a heart attack at some point.
  • If an area of poor blood flow is seen on the exercise image, but not on the rest image, it means there is probably a blockage in one of the coronary arteries. The blockage is causing a temporary drop in blood flow.

How a Nuclear Stress Test Works

The nuclear stress test uses a radioactive tracer to make a picture. The tracer is a very small amount of radioactive material that is delivered into your body through an intravenous (IV) line. 

The tracer that is commonly used today is called technetium-99 (Tc-99). It provides clearer images than the tracers used in the past. It also exposes a patient to less radiation.

Rest and Exercise Images

Most labs do one-day nuclear stress testing but it can also be done over two days. However, one-day testing is generally more convenient for patients.

The resting image is captured first. This image only needs a small dose of Tc-99. The image is captured with a special camera that is used to scan the chest (gamma camera).

A few hours later, the stress image is captured. For the stress image, the Tc-99 dose is much larger than it was for the resting image. The tracer is injected during peak exercise, which is usually done on a treadmill or stationary bicycle.

For both images, the gamma scan is done 15 to 60 minutes after the tracer is injected.

In People Who Cannot Exercise

Exercise stress testing is the preferred way to do a nuclear stress test. However, some people can't do the type of exercise that is required for the test. For example, they may have physical limitations that make exercise difficult or impossible.

These patients can have pharmacologic stress testing instead of exercise stress testing. This is done with drugs that cause the same type of stress on the heart as exercise.

The types of drugs used may include:

  • Vasodilators such as Adenocard (adenosine) or Persantine (dipyridamole)
  • Inotropic drugs, usually Dobutrex (dobutamine)

Vasodilators are usually preferred for the pharmacologic stress test. These are medications that dilate or open the blood vessels. Your provider will choose the best drug for your case if exercise is not an option.

Risks and Contraindications of a Nuclear Stress Test

When performed by experienced providers, the nuclear stress test is very safe. Still, there are known risks.

Possible risks of having a nuclear stress test that you should be aware of include:

  • Cardiac arrhythmias: Exercise-induced heart arrhythmias are when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Arrhythmias are usually not dangerous. They almost always go away when the person stops exercising. While arrhythmias are a risk of stress testing, their presence can also help with diagnosis. If you're worried about them, keep in mind that if dangerous arrhythmias happen during modest exercise, the safest way to find out about them is in a controlled setting under the care of a provider.
  • Chest pain, dizziness, or other symptoms: In people with serious CAD, modest exercise can cause symptoms of insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle (cardiac ischemia). While it is a risk of the test, it can also be useful for providers to see exercise-related symptoms during the test. In fact, in people who are being assessed for exercise-related symptoms, one of the goals is to reproduce the symptoms during the test.
  • Allergic reaction: Some people may have an allergic reaction to the radioactive tracer, but this is very rare.
  • Heart attack: It's very rare, but if a person has a critical blockage, exercise might produce a heart attack.

Life-threatening complications rarely happen during a nuclear stress test. They are estimated to occur only in 1 out of every 10,000 exercise tests.

Who Should Not Get the Test?

Some people should not do nuclear stress testing.

If you have the following conditions, your provider may not want you to have the test:

Radiation Exposure

During a typical nuclear stress test, you are exposed to 11 millisieverts of radiation. This is about three times the dose of radiation that you get just from going about your normal, day-to-day life for one year.

A dose of 11 millisieverts is considered a small amount of radiation exposure. By itself, it should not increase your lifetime risk of cancer by any measurable amount.

Before Your Nuclear Stress Test

It is normal to have some anxiety about having a nuclear stress test. Knowing how to prepare and what to expect may help relieve your nerves.

Timing and Location

Most nuclear stress tests are performed in a hospital outpatient department.

You will probably be asked to show up at least 30 minutes before the scheduled test. You can expect to be at the hospital for at least four hours.

What to Wear

Since you will be exercising, bring comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. Make sure to bring shoes that fit well. Many people bring gym clothes and walking or running shoes.

Most testing facilities will provide a place for you to change your clothes.

Food and Drink

You will be asked to not have any food or drink four to six hours before your test. You will also be asked not to smoke for four to six hours before you arrive.

You will also need to avoid caffeine for at least 24 hours before the test.

Medications

If you take prescription medications, ask your provider which medications you should take on the day of testing, and which you should not take.

If you have diabetes, you'll be given instructions on how to take your medications on the day of the test.

Avoid taking any over-the-counter (OTC) medications before the test unless your provider says that it's OK to take them.

Make sure you tell your provider about all the medications and supplements you're taking, even the ones you get over-the-counter.

Cost and Health Insurance

A nuclear stress test can be expensive, but the cost varies from facility to facility. If you have health insurance, the cost will also depend on your coverage.

Most medical insurance will cover a nuclear stress test if a qualified cardiologist says that you need it. To be sure, check with your insurance company before you have the test.

What to Bring

You will probably have a few hours of downtime during the test. You may want to bring a book or have a game to play on your phone to pass the time.

Other Considerations

If possible, bring a family member or a friend with you on the day of the test. This person can keep you company and offer support if you expect to get the results.

During Your Nuclear Stress Test

If you're feeling nervous about the test itself, knowing what will happen during it can make it less overwhelming.

Pre-Test

After you arrive for testing you will be interviewed by someone on your healthcare team.

This person will ask if your symptoms or medical condition have changed since you last saw your provider. You will also have a quick physical exam.

Your team will let you know what to expect during the test. You will also be given a chance to ask questions.

Throughout the Test

The testing will be overseen by a healthcare provider. They will tell you who they are and what they do before you start the test.

If you are doing a one-day test, the resting image is done first. The exercise part will be done later the same day.

For a two-day test, the exercise part is usually done on the first day. The resting part is done on the second day.

During the resting test, a technician will put an IV line into one of your veins. Then, a small amount of tracer will be injected.

After about 20 minutes, you will lie down under a gamma camera. You will need to keep your arms above your head and lie still.

It will take another 15 to 20 minutes to make the image. The image will show how the blood is flowing to your heart.

Before the exercise test, a technician will put electrodes on your chest. The electrodes allow an electrocardiogram (ECG) to be recorded while you are exercising. This test measures the electrical rhythm of your heart. 

When the test starts, you will walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike at a very slow pace. The level of exercise will increase every three minutes. The exercise will stop when one of these things happens:

When you have reached the maximum level of exercise, the tracer will be injected into your IV. At that point, you will stop exercising.

Your ECG and vital signs will be monitored throughout the exercise and recovery periods. The exercise itself usually lasts for no more than six to 12 minutes.

Twenty to 30 minutes after you've finished exercising, you will lie under the gamma camera again. You will be asked to keep your arms above your head. The exercise cardiac image takes about 20 minutes to make.

After Your Nuclear Stress Test

Most people can go back to their normal routine immediately after the test. This includes having meals, taking medications, and doing other activities.

The amount of radiation you receive during this test is considered very small. There are no special precautions you will need to take afterward.

How and when you get your results depends on the testing center. Most laboratories will give you an overview of the results right away. If the test finds problems, you'll be given advice on what to do next.

If there are no obvious problems, you likely will not get the formal results of the test until a cardiologist looks at the images.

In this case, you'll get your results from the provider who ordered the test. From there, you'll discuss what, if anything, should be done next.

Managing Side Effects

A nuclear stress test generally does not have any side effects. However, you may have some fatigue from the exercise.

If you have any unusual symptoms after the test, call your provider.

Interpreting the Results of a Nuclear Stress Test

The interpretation of the results is different for everyone. You'll need to discuss the results with your provider.

In general, the results of a nuclear stress test fall into three categories.

1. Both the resting and exercise cardiac images are normal

If both your resting and exercise images were normal, it means that:

  • There is no detectable permanent heart damage from a prior heart attack
  • No part of the heart is deprived of blood flow during exercise

Getting this result strongly suggests that there are no significant coronary artery blockages. In this case, the chance of having CAD is low.

Your healthcare provider will discuss the next steps with you. If your test is normal, you may not need more cardiac testing.

However, if your test was normal but there is strong evidence of CAD, your provider will likely recommend immediate medical treatment. The goal will be to relieve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

You may also need to have a different test. For example, your provider may want you to have cardiac catheterization if:

  • Your symptoms are very bad
  • Your risk of having an early heart attack is high

2. The resting cardiac image is abnormal

The resting cardiac scan may show an area where blood is not flowing normally to part of the heart.

If you get this result, it indicates that you've had a prior heart attack that caused permanent heart muscle damage.

3. The exercise cardiac scan is abnormal, but the resting image is normal

Getting this result suggests that there is a significant blockage in a coronary artery:

  • The heart is getting normal flow at rest
  • The heart is not getting the right amount of blood flow during exercise

Different parts of the heart muscle may display any of these general findings.

For example, a person could have a “permanent” defect in one part of the heart muscle. This indicates a heart attack has occurred.

They may also have a “reversible” defect in another part of the heart muscle. This indicates there is a blockage but no permanent damage.

Summary

A nuclear stress test is used to find heart problems. The test uses a small amount of radioactive material to record blood flow to your heart. The test is done while you are at rest and exercising.

A nuclear stress test can show if you've had a prior heart attack. It can also find blockages. The test can help your provider understand how severe the blockages are.

If you can't exercise, a drug can be used to create the same type of stress on your heart during the test.

The nuclear stress test is generally very safe. There are some risks, like cardiac arrhythmias, chest pain, and, in rare cases, heart attack. The amount of radiation used is very small and does not increase your lifetime risk of cancer.

Most tests are done in a hospital outpatient setting. They can be done in one day or over the course of two days. Most people can return to normal activities immediately after the test is done. There are usually no side effects of the test.

The results of the test can show if you have coronary artery disease, blockages, or a previous heart attack. Your provider will discuss the next steps with you, depending on the results. 

A Word From Verywell

If you need to have a nuclear stress test, you might be nervous about what the test will be like or what the results might show.

Understanding how to prepare, what to expect during and after the test, and knowing about the risks can help make the idea of having the test less scary.

You might feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to do exercise if you have symptoms, but know that you will be in a safe setting under a provider's care during the test.

It can actually be helpful for them to see you having symptoms and be able to look at how your heart is doing while you are exercising.

The results of the test can help your provider come up with the best treatment for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I take my regular medications before a nuclear stress test?

    You may need to stop taking certain medications before a nuclear test.

    For instance, your provider may tell you not to take beta-blockers, nitroglycerin, or heart medications for 24 hours before the test.

    You may also need to stop aspirin, blood thinners, asthma medications, and diabetes medications, 48 hours before the test.

    It's important that you tell your provider about all the medications you take, even over-the-counter ones.

  • Is the radiation in a nuclear stress test safe?

    The amount of radiation you are exposed to during a nuclear stress test is very small. It is not generally considered enough to increase your risk for cancer.

    If you are worried about direct exposure to radiation, know that the American Heart Association (AHA) and other organizations have created guidelines to help providers determine if the test is medically necessary.

    If your provider wants you to have the test, it means that the risk of cancer is outweighed by the benefit you'll gain from having a potential heart problem diagnosed through testing.

  • How long will radioactivity from a nuclear stress test stay in my system?

    The radiotracer will lose its radioactivity through natural decay in about a day. You should pass it in your urine or stool. Drinking water can help wash it out of your system.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.