Rethinking False Positive Exercise Electrocardiographic Stress Tests by Assessing Coronary Microvascular Function

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Background: Exercise electrocardiographic stress testing (EST) has historically been validated against the demonstration of obstructive coronary artery disease. However, myocardial ischemia can occur because of coronary microvascular dysfunction (CMD) in the absence of obstructive coronary artery disease. 

Objectives: The aim of this study was to assess the specificity of EST to detect an ischemic substrate against the reference standard of coronary endothelium-independent and endothelium-dependent microvascular function in patients with angina with nonobstructive coronary arteries (ANOCA). 

Methods: Patients with ANOCA underwent invasive coronary physiological assessment using adenosine and acetylcholine. CMD was defined as impaired endothelium-independent and/or endothelium-dependent function. EST was performed using a standard Bruce treadmill protocol, with ischemia defined as the appearance of ≥0.1-mV ST-segment depression 80 ms from the J-point on electrocardiography. The study was powered to detect specificity of ≥91%. 

Results: A total of 102 patients were enrolled (65% women, mean age 60 ± 8 years). Thirty-two patients developed ischemia (ischemic group) during EST, whereas 70 patients did not (nonischemic group); both groups were phenotypically similar. Ischemia during EST was 100% specific for CMD. Acetylcholine flow reserve was the strongest predictor of ischemia during exercise. Using endothelium-independent and endothelium-dependent microvascular dysfunction as the reference standard, the false positive rate of EST dropped to 0%. 

Conclusions: In patients with ANOCA, ischemia on EST was highly specific of an underlying ischemic substrate. These findings challenge the traditional belief that EST has a high false positive rate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)291–299
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the American College of Cardiology
Issue number2
Early online date8 Jan 2024
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jan 2024


  • Humans
  • Female
  • Middle Aged
  • Aged
  • Male
  • Exercise Test
  • Coronary Artery Disease/diagnosis
  • Acetylcholine
  • Electrocardiography
  • Myocardial Ischemia/diagnosis
  • Vascular Diseases
  • Ischemia

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