Heart disease, like most medical problems, is easiest to treat when caught early. That's another reason regular doctor visits are so important. By checking your blood pressure, doing blood tests that reveal your blood fat levels and average blood glucose levels, and listening for problems through a stethoscope, your doctor gets clues to early signs of trouble.
If your doctor suspects a problem, he or she will probably send you to a cardiologist (a doctor trained in heart disease and treatment) for more tests. One of the first tests the cardiologist will do is an electrocardiogram (ECG). This test measures the electrical activity of the heart muscle. The ECG gives the doctor information about heart rhythms and blood flow through the heart. It can detect heart muscle damage from previous mild heart attacks that may have occurred.
You may also walk on a moving treadmill to see how your heart responds to moderate levels of stress. A nuclear tracer test may be added to the treadmill exercise. The doctor injects a mildly radioactive fluid into your bloodstream. When viewed by special detectors, the fluid "lights up" portions of the heart. This shows if the heart function is normal.
These are the common tests that give doctors information about your heart without them probing your body. If something is clearly wrong, the most precise ways to measure heart damage are invasive tests that require going into the body. These include:
- cardiac catheterization, which measures pressure in the heart with a long tube inserted into a blood vessel and threaded into the heart
- coronary arteriography, which is a set of X-ray pictures of the heart and coronary arteries taken after a dye is sent through the same tube used for catheterization
These tests need to be done at a hospital or specialized clinic.