Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure (CHF), means your heart can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs. Over time, conditions such as narrowed arteries in your heart (coronary artery disease) or high blood pressure gradually leave your heart too weak or stiff to fill and pump efficiently.
You can't reverse many conditions that lead to heart failure, but heart failure can often be treated with good results. Medications can improve the signs and symptoms of heart failure. Lifestyle changes, such as exercising, reducing the salt in your diet, managing stress, treating depression, and especially losing excess weight, can improve your quality of life.
The best way to prevent heart failure is to control risk factors and conditions that cause heart failure, such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity.
Heart failure can be chronic — meaning your condition is ongoing — or acute, meaning your condition has started suddenly.
Chronic heart failure symptoms
Acute heart failure symptoms
When to see a doctor
You may first find out you have heart failure from an emergency room visit after worsening symptoms. Other heart and lung problems can cause symptoms that are similar to heart failure.
If you have a diagnosis of heart failure, and if any of the symptoms suddenly become worse or you develop a new sign or symptom, it may mean that existing heart failure is getting worse or not responding to treatment. Contact your doctor promptly.
Heart failure often develops after other conditions have damaged or weakened your heart. Over time, the heart can no longer keep up with the normal demands placed on it to pump blood to the rest of your body. The main pumping chambers of your heart (the ventricles) may become stiff and not fill properly between beats. Also, your heart muscle may weaken, and the ventricles stretch (dilate) to the point that the heart can't pump blood efficiently throughout your body. The term "congestive heart failure" comes from blood backing up into — or congesting — the liver, abdomen, lower extremities and lungs.
Heart failure can involve the left side, right side or both sides of your heart. Typically, heart failure begins with the left side — specifically the left ventricle, your heart's main pumping chamber.
Any of the following conditions can damage or weaken your heart and can cause heart failure. Some of these can be present without your knowing it:
Chambers and the valves of the heart
A normal heart has two upper and two lower chambers. The upper chambers, the right and left atria, receive incoming blood. The lower chambers, the more muscular right and left ventricles, pump blood ...
Enlarged heart, in heart failure
As your heart weakens, such as in heart failure, it begins to enlarge, forcing your heart to work harder to pump blood on to the rest of your body. ...
A single risk factor may be enough to cause heart failure, but a combination of factors increases your risk.
Risk factors include:
If you have heart failure, your outlook depends on the cause and the severity, your overall health, and other factors such as your age. Complications can include:
Some people's symptoms and heart function will improve with proper treatment. However, heart failure can be life-threatening. It can lead to sudden death. People with heart failure may have severe symptoms, and some may require heart transplantation or support with an artificial heart device.
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you may have heart failure, or are worried about your heart failure risk because of other underlying conditions, make an appointment with your family doctor. If heart failure is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For heart failure, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
To diagnose heart failure, your doctor will take a careful medical history and perform a physical examination. Your doctor will also check for the presence of risk factors such as high blood pressure. Using a stethoscope, your doctor can listen to your lungs for signs of congestion. The stethoscope also picks up abnormal heart sounds that may suggest heart failure. The doctor may examine the veins in your neck and check for fluid buildup in your abdomen and legs. After the physical exam, your doctor may also order some of these tests:
Classifying heart failure
Ask your doctor about your score if you're interested in determining the severity of your heart failure. Your doctor can help you interpret your score and plan your treatment based on your condition.
Treatments and drugs
Heart failure is a chronic disease needing lifelong management. However, with treatment, signs and symptoms of heart failure can improve and the heart sometimes becomes stronger. Doctors sometimes can correct heart failure by treating the underlying cause. For example, repairing a heart valve or controlling a fast heart rhythm may reverse heart failure. But for most people, the treatment of heart failure involves a balance of the right medications, and in some cases, devices that help the heart beat and contract properly.
You'll probably need to take two or more medications to treat heart failure. Your doctor may prescribe other heart medications as well — such as nitrates for chest pain, a statin to lower cholesterol or blood-thinning medications to help prevent blood clots — along with heart failure medications.
You may be hospitalized for a few days if you have a flare-up of heart failure symptoms. While in the hospital, you may receive additional medications to help your heart pump better and relieve your symptoms. You may also receive supplemental oxygen through a mask or small tubes placed in your nose. If you have severe heart failure, you may need to use supplemental oxygen long term.
Surgery and medical devices
End-of-life care and heart failure
Hospice care allows family and friends — with the aid of nurses, social workers and trained volunteers — to care for and comfort a loved one at home or in hospice residences. It also provides emotional, social and spiritual support for people who are ill and those closest to them. Although most people under hospice care remain in their own homes, the program is available anywhere — including nursing homes and assisted living centers. For people who stay in a hospital, specialists in end-of-life care can provide comfort, compassionate care and dignity.
Although it can be extremely difficult, discuss end-of-life issues with your family and medical team. Part of this discussion will likely involve advance directives — a general term for oral and written instructions you give concerning your medical care should you become unable to speak for yourself. If you have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), one important consideration to discuss with your family and doctors is turning off the defibrillator so it can't deliver shocks to make your heart continue beating.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Making lifestyle changes can often help relieve signs and symptoms of heart failure and prevent the disease from worsening. These changes may be among the most important and beneficial you can make:
The key to preventing heart failure is to reduce your risk factors. You can control or eliminate many of the risk factors for heart disease — high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, for example — by making lifestyle changes along with the help of any needed medications.
Lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent heart failure include:
Coping and support
Although many cases of heart failure can't be reversed, treatment can sometimes improve symptoms and help you live longer. You and your doctor can work together to help make your life more comfortable. Pay attention to your body and how you feel, and tell your doctor when you're feeling better or feeling worse. This way, your doctor will know what treatment works best for you.
Don't be afraid to ask your doctor questions about living with heart failure. These steps can help you work most effectively with your doctor:
Managing heart failure requires an open dialogue between you and your doctor. Be honest about whether you're following recommendations concerning your diet, lifestyle and taking medications. Your doctor often can suggest strategies to help you get and stay on track.
Last Updated: 2011-03-22
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