Common Tests for Heart Failure

Updated:May 8,2017



To determine whether you have heart failure, your healthcare team may do some or all of these diagnostic tests and procedures.

Common tests for heart failure

Physical examination

How it's done:

  • You'll be asked about your medical history and symptoms. Usually you have to fill out forms with this information before your examination. The doctor or a healthcare assistant may ask you the questions again during the exam.
  • Your blood pressure will be taken.
  • You'll be weighed.
  • A healthcare professional will listen to your heart and lungs using a stethoscope.
  • The physical exam is generally painless.
Tips for success:
  • Don't be afraid to "look bad." For instance, if you smoke, eat a lot of high-fat foods or are physically inactive, be honest. That information helps determine your risk for heart failure.
  • Your doctor can't make an accurate diagnosis without full input from you. Think of your healthcare providers as your partners — you have to work together to be successful.
  • Follow all instructions for preparing for your exam. You may be told not to eat or drink anything for a certain amount of time before your appointment.
  • Bring all your medications or a list of all your medications to your appointment. That includes over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and supplements as well as prescriptions.

How it's done:

  • You'll be asked about your medical history and symptoms. Usually you have to fill out forms with this information before your examination. The doctor or a healthcare assistant may ask you the questions again during the exam.
  • Your blood pressure will be taken.
  • You'll be weighed.
  • A healthcare professional will listen to your heart and lungs using a stethoscope.
  • The physical exam is generally painless.
Tips for success:
  • Don't be afraid to "look bad." For instance, if you smoke, eat a lot of high-fat foods or are physically inactive, be honest. That information helps determine your risk for heart failure.
  • Your doctor can't make an accurate diagnosis without full input from you. Think of your healthcare providers as your partners — you have to work together to be successful.
  • Follow all instructions for preparing for your exam. You may be told not to eat or drink anything for a certain amount of time before your appointment.
  • Bring all your medications or a list of all your medications to your appointment. That includes over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and supplements as well as prescriptions.

How they're done:

  • A sample of blood is drawn from your arm, either in the doctor's office or in a lab.
  • The sample is then analyzed for levels of important substances, such as sodium and potassium (sometimes called electrolytes), albumin (a type of protein), creatinine (which is connected with kidney function) and certain biomarkers (help diagnose heart failure and predict outcomes.
What they show: Abnormal levels may indicate strain on organs such as the kidneys and liver which often results from heart failure. Abnormal levels may indicate strain on the heart or on other organs such as the kidneys and liver which often results from heart failure.

How it's done:

  • X-rays are taken while you stand up or lie down on a table.
  • Views may be taken from the back, front and/or sides.
  • X-ray studies may be done in the doctor's office or in a separate radiology lab.
  • X-rays are painless.
What it shows:
  • Whether the heart is enlarged
  • Whether there is congestion in the lungs.
Learn more about chest X-rays.

How it's done:

  • Small electrodes (round plastic discs the size of a half-dollar) are placed on your chest. Wires run from the electrodes to the EKG machine.
  • The EKG machine then records your heart's rhythm, frequency of beats and electrical conduction.
  • EKGs are painless.
What it shows:
  • Whether you've had a heart attack
  • If the left ventricle is thickened (enlarged heart muscle wall)
  • If the heart rhythm is abnormal (noting any arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation)

 Learn more about EKGs.

How it's done:

  • An ultrasound test that uses sound waves to examine the heart's structure and motion.
  • The patient lies still while a technician moves a device over the chest.
  • The device gives off a silent sound wave that bounces off the heart, creating images of the chambers and valves.
  • Generally painless.
     
What it shows: The images produced by the echo can show how thick the heart muscle is and how well the heart pumps.

Learn more about echocardiography.

How it's done:

  • You'll be hooked up to equipment to monitor your heart.
  • You'll walk slowly in place on a treadmill. Then the speed is increased for a faster pace and the treadmill is tilted to produce the effect of going up a small hill.
  • You may be asked to breathe into a tube for a couple of minutes.
  • Your heart rate and rhythm, breathing, blood pressure and how tired you feel are monitored during the test.
  • You'll be asked to keep up the pace for as long as you can, but you can stop the test at any time if needed.
  • Afterwards, you will sit or lie down while your heart and blood pressure are checked.
  • The test is painless although you may feel as though you're exercising strenuously during the test.
     
What it shows:
  • Whether your heart responds normally to the stress of exercise.
  • Whether the blood supply is reduced in the arteries that supply your heart.
  • Can help determine the kind and level of exercise appropriate for you.
Learn more about exercise stress test.

How it's done:

  • Radioactive substances called radionuclides are injected into the bloodstream.
  • Computer-generated pictures can then display their locations in the heart.
  • You'll have a shot or an IV; otherwise a painless procedure.
  • There's no lasting effect from the radionuclides.
What it shows:
  • How well the heart muscle is supplied with blood
  • How well the heart's chambers are working
  • Whether part of the heart has been damaged by heart attack
Learn more about Radionuclide Ventriculography or Radionuclide Angiography (MUGA Scan)

How it's done:

  • A very small tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel in your upper thigh (groin area) or arm.
  • The tip of the tube is positioned either in the heart or at the beginning of the arteries supplying the heart.
  • A special fluid (called a contrast medium or dye) is injected. This fluid is visible by X-ray.
  • The pictures that are obtained are called angiograms.
  • This procedure may involve some discomfort from placement of the catheter. You may be required to rest in a certain position after the procedure.
What it shows:
  • Blockages in the coronary arteries are visible on the x-rays.
  • The parts of your heart that are fed by the blocked or narrowed arteries may be weakened or damaged from lack of blood.
Learn more about cardiac catheterization.

How it’s done:
A radiologist or MRI technologist usually performs the scan in a hospital, clinic or imaging center using special equipment.

  • You’ll lie down on a moveable table that slides into the MRI machine. The machine looks like a long metal tube.
  • Your technologist will watch you from another room. You can talk with him or her by microphone. In some cases, a friend or family member may stay in the room with you.
  • The MRI machine will create a strong magnetic field around you, and radio waves will be directed at the area of your body to be imaged. You won’t feel the magnetic field or radio waves.
  • During the MRI scan, the magnet produces loud tapping or thumping sounds and other noises. You may be given earplugs or you may listen to music with headphones to help block the noise.
  • In some cases, you may have an intravenous (IV) line in your hand or arm for injecting a contrast agent into your veins (for an MRA). The contrast agent produces better images of your tissues and blood vessels. It does not contain iodine and is less likely to cause an allergic reaction compared to the agents used for computed tomography (CT) scans.
  • An MRI scan lasts between 30 and 90 minutes.
What it shows:
  • The test can show your heart’s structure (muscle, valves and chambers) and how well blood flows through your heart and major vessels.
  • MRI of the heart lets your doctor see if your heart is damaged from a heart attack, or if there is lack of blood flow to the heart muscle because of narrowed or blocked arteries
Learn more about MRI.





This content was last reviewed May 2017.

Heart Failure Questions to Ask Your Doctor

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Use these questions to ask your doctor about heart failure.


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