How is a Regular Treadmill Stress Test Performed?

The patient is brought to the exercise laboratory where the heart rate and blood pressure are recorded at rest. Sticky electrodes are attached to the chest, shoulders and hips and connected to the EKG portion of the Stress test machine. A 12-lead EKG is recorded on paper. Each lead of the EKG represents a different portion of the heart, with adjacent leads representing a single wall. For example: Leads 2, 3, and aVF = bottom or inferior portion of the heart. Leads V1 and V2 = septum or partition of the heart. Leads V3, V4, V5 and V6 = anterior or front portion of the heart. Leads 1 and aVL = superior or top and outer left portion of the heart. Lead aVR looks at the cavity of the heart and has almost no clinical value in identifying coronary disease.

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Three of the EKG leads are also constantly displayed on the treadmill monitor. Each lead representing a different wall. The physician has the option of selecting different combinations of three.

The treadmill is then started at a relatively slow "warm-up" speed. The treadmill speed and it's slope or inclination are increased every three minutes according to a preprogrammed protocol (Bruce is the commonest protocol in the USA, but several other protocols are perfectly acceptable). The protocol dictates the precise speed and slope. Each three minute interval is known as a Stage (Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, etc. Thus a patient completing Stage 3 has exercised for 3 x 3 = 9 minutes). The patient's blood pressure is usually recorded during the second minute of each Stage. However, it may be recorded more frequently if the readings are too high or too low. As noted earlier, the EKG is constantly displayed on the monitor. It is also recorded on paper at one minute intervals. The physician pays particular attention to the heart rate, blood pressure, changes in the EKG pattern, irregular heart rhythm, and the patient's appearance and symptoms. The treadmill is stopped when the patient achieves a target heart rate (this is 85% of the maximal heart rate predicted for the patient's age). However, if the patient is doing extremely well at peak exercise, the treadmill test may be continued further. The test may be stopped prior to achievement of the target heart rate if the patient develops significant chest discomfort, shortness of breath, dizziness, unsteady gait, etc., or if the EKG shows alarming changes or serious irregular heart beats. It may also be stopped if the blood pressure (BP) rises or falls beyond acceptable limits. Please note that the systolic BP (upper number) may normally rise to 200 at peak exercise. At the same time, the diastolic BP (lower number) remains unchanged or falls to a slight degree. In contrast, the BP of patients with hypertension or high BP will show a rise of both systolic and diastolic readings. The latter may rise above 90 - 100.