Many diagnostic tests available today can show doctors if you have heart or vascular disease. Or, if you already know that you have heart disease, these tests can show doctors if your disease is getting worse. Many of these tests produce "pictures" of your heart. The pictures will not look like a heart, though, and your doctor will have to tell you what these pictures show.
Some tests are more reliable than others, especially for detecting coronary artery disease. Your doctor will decide which test is best for you, based on your symptoms, your medical history, and your history of disease.
During your first physical examination, doctors will likely perform some basic tests. First, they may listen to your heart with a stethoscope. This is called auscultation, which means the study of heart sounds. Doctors are sometimes able to diagnose some types of heart valve disease by listening to any abnormal heart sounds that they hear through the stethoscope.
Doctors will also take your blood pressure using a pressure cuff and a blood pressure machine (called a sphygmomanometer). Blood pressure readings measure the two parts of blood pressure: systolic and diastolic pressures. Systolic pressure is the force of blood flow through an artery when the heart beats. Diastolic pressure is the force of blood flow within blood vessels when the heart rests between beats. A blood pressure reading measures both the systolic and diastolic forces, with the systolic pressure listed first. The numbers show your pressure in units of millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)—how high the pressure inside your arteries would be able to raise a column of mercury. For example, a reading of 120/80 mm Hg means a systolic pressure of 120 mm Hg and diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg.
Doctors may also take x-rays of your heart so that they can see its outline, or silhouette. They can look at the x-rays to see if your heart is an unusual shape or if it is larger than it should be.
All of the tests listed below can be performed on an outpatient basis, which means that you will not have to stay overnight in the hospital. (You may need to have more invasive tests if your doctor finds that your disease is more serious.)
Use the links in the column on the left to learn more about the details of each test or procedure.