Nuclear Stress Test – Basic Procedure, Cost, & Side-Effects

When you are suffering from some sort of coronary arteries diseases especially the blockage in the major blood vessels of the heart. In that case, a doctor may prescribe a test called Nuclear Stress Test.

And if you want to know its procedure, side-effects, cost, risk factors, and other diseases in which this nuclear test is useful for diagnosis, then feel free to read the whole post. 

What is a Nuclear Stress Test?

What is a Nuclear Stress Test?

It is a test that measures the blood flow to the heart and on the basis of it, a doctor can state whether you have normal or abnormal blood flow. So, it is a test to check the fluency of blood flow in the major blood vessels to the heart. 

In this test, a small amount of nuclear radioactive substance— radioactive tracer is used. And when this tracer flows through the heart’s arteries, it creates an image of its flowing path. This would help doctors to understand the condition of the arteries of the heart. The test is generally performed both during physical exercises and at rest.

So, by doing two sets (with and without exercise), there are more promising results that speak the poor blood flow or any damages to heart. However, this test is one of the types of various stress test that is useful to diagnose the various heart and circulatory system conditions.

But, a nuclear stress test provides more promising results than any other test for cardiac arrest cases.

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Why Nuclear Stress Test is Done?

Why Nuclear Stress Test is Done?

As stated earlier, they are the test to check the fluency of blood flow to the heart. But there are other reasons and conditions, in which a nuclear stress test gives an optimal overview of the person’s health.

In addition, in the majority of cases, it is helpful in diagnosing which condition did you have. But sometimes, they fail to provide the exact cause. Yet, it is a promising test for the condition such as: 

For Diagnosis of Coronary Artery Diseases

While talking about the major blood vessels that supply blood, oxygen, and other nutrients to the heart is the coronary arteries. With time, usually with poor diet and limited exercises, these coronary arteries get damaged, blocked, narrowed, or other diseases could happen to them. In general, they are due to the accumulation of cholesterol on the walls of arteries.

This would generate symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. In that case, a nuclear stress test could be helpful in deciding the exact location of the damage/ blockage as well as the severity of the case.  

As a Guide Treatment for Heart Diseases

You are on your medication for coronary arteries disease, your doctor may prescribe you another test to check your development. And based on your improvement, your doctor can state your further medication, treatment plan, or exercises that good for your heart. 

Procedure For Nuclear Stress Test

Procedure For Nuclear Stress Test

While defining the procedure for a nuclear stress test, we have divided this section into three parts i.e. before, during, and after the test.  

Before the Test (Precautions)

There are a few things that a patient has to follow when he is going to have a nuclear stress test. These are as follows:

Food and Drink

Before a test, it is mediatory to avoid food for at least 4 to 6 hours and beverages such as caffeine should be omitted for a minimum of 36 hours before the test. 


These are generally crucial when the person is already suffering from some other diseases such as diabetes. In that case, one should talk to their doctor and get possible help related to take certain medications or avoid it.


As in this test, you have to do some sort of physical exercise which would generally be walking on the treadmill, riding a bike, etc. So, you definitely need some comfortable clothes along with shoes. Therefore, you can pick your gym clothes along with a pair of comfortable running shoes. 

Bring one Family Member or Friend 

It is recommended to bring someone who you know. Because the test could take your whole day (from testing to result) and at that time someone might help you get rid-off any negative cloudy thoughts.

And if you already have recent conditions like a heart attack, diabetes, you should definitely bring someone to take care of you.

During the Test

While performing this test, the patient has to go for two procedures: preliminary examination and the actual test.

Preliminary Examination

Before punching you with a radioactive tracer, the doctor first goes through a preliminary examination to flag you fit for the nuclear stress test.

He might check the blood pressure, signs of vertigo, headaches, trouble in breathing, etc. After checking all the preliminary signs, the doctor then gives you a green check for the actual test. 

While Performing Actual Test

Without Physical Exercise

In the actual test, the doctor intravenous injected the radioactive tracer serum (called Cardiolite) into the bloodstream via a vein. After 15 to 20 minutes, you are advised to take rest for an additional 20 minutes under the gamma camera by keeping your arms up above your head.

With the help of the gamma camera, the doctor analyzes the radioactive tracers’ path to the heart and also its distribution. 

With Physical Exercise

After tracing a normal path of the heart system, now doctor may give you another time slot for testing with physical exercise. The time slot maybe later on the same day or the following day.  

Now, a doctor places some electrodes on the chest to record the fasten movement of the blood to the heart. As you start doing physical work such as walking on treadmills, and every 2 to 3 minutes the walking speed is gradually increased. This ends up when you get fully exhausted or you reach the targeted heart rate.

Now, at this time the tracer serum is injected and you have to again align on under the gamma camera with arms overhead position. Meanwhile, the ECG monitored your heart rate and other vitals.

This will project the clear image of the blood circulation system that might not clearly be seen while you had done the resting nuclear stress test. This whole procedure could take 35 to 40 minutes (from 10-15 minutes exercise to 20 to 25 minutes under gamma camera observation. 

After the Test and Precautions

In general, the patients are advised to follow their normal routines such as meals, medications, and other activities. However, laboratories take additional steps to check any abnormal signs. If they don’t appear you are good to go. 

Nuclear Stress Test Results

Nuclear Stress Test Results

There are three case scenario such as 

  • Both Tests are normal
  • Resting Cardiac Nuclear Stress Test is abnormal
  • Resting test is normal while exercise cardiac is abnormal

Both the Test are Normal

When the patient got both tests normal, this means that the patients neither have any permanent heart damage nor there is any deprivation or obstruction in blood flow in the coronary artery. 

Resting Cardiac Nuclear Stress Test is abnormal

If you got this result, you definitely need immediate help. This is because they are generally seen due to narrowed or obstruction of coronary arteries. And in this condition, there is a higher chance that the person is going to have a heart attack.

Resting test is normal while exercise cardiac is abnormal

This result signifies that a certain portion of the heart is not getting sufficient blood. This is a clear indication of blockage in some parts of the coronary arteries.

Moreover, this nuclear abnormal result, also useful in depicting which part or area is more affected. In addition, this result also indicates no permanent damage to coronary arteries.

And with the help of certain medications, this condition might not need surgery.

Risks and Side-Effect of Nuclear Stress Test

Risks and Side-Effect of Nuclear Stress Test

Generally, the radioactive tracer and gamma camera doesn’t pose any side-effects. But in very rare cases, the patient might generate side-effects. And these are the following risks and side-effects of nuclear stress test:

  1. Allergic reaction to radioactive tracer dye
  2. Abnormal heartbeats— generally after exercise
  3. Low blood pressure— during or immediately after exercise
  4. Chest pain
  5. Shortness of breath
  6. Nausea
  7. Anxiety and Headache
  8. Dizziness or faintness

Nuclear Stress Test Cost

It is relatively pricer than any normal cardiologic test but the cost can cover too many advantages and a relatively better understanding of coronary arteries diseases. However, the average cost for a nuclear stress test would be around $650.  

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General FAQ

How long does a nuclear stress test take?

Nuclear stress tests generally take about 90 mins in total. This is because it has two parts; testing on resting takes about 30-35 mins while testing with stress exercise would take around 40- 50 minutes. 

What is the difference between a nuclear stress test and a stress test?

In a stress test, the doctor uses physical workouts to check the heart working usually with the help of an ECG machine. While in a nuclear test, a radioactive tracer is used to monitor the heart working both at rest and under physical workouts.

What should I avoid after a nuclear stress test?

In general, you don’t have to avoid any of your work. Because the radioactive tracer doesn’t cause any health damages except you get allergies from it. 

How long does it take to get results from a nuclear stress test?

It usually takes 48 hours to 72 hours to get a result from a nuclear stress test.

Does a nuclear stress test show block arteries?

Yes, they are helpful to diagnose a condition such as blocked or damaged coronary arteries

How much does a nuclear stress test cost?

A nuclear stress test could cost you around $650.

What are the side effects of nuclear stress tests on kidneys?

There are no side effects of the nuclear stress test on the functioning of the kidneys. Moreover, the Cardiolite—radioactive tracer— is not harmful to kidneys.

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