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Understanding Heart Failure

January 31, 2022

Heart and Vascular Primary Care Healthy Aging
female doctor examining senior male patient in a modern office clinic

Despite how the term sounds, heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working altogether.  

“Heart failure, sometimes called congestive heart failure, or CHF, is when the heart muscle is damaged and can no longer pump blood through the body as well as it should,” explains Divya Gumber, M.D., a Riverside cardiologist with subspecialty training in treating heart failure.

Since the heart is unable to keep up with the body’s demands, it tries to make up for it by beating faster and stretching to pump more blood with each beat. The body tries to make up for the decreased supply of oxygen-rich blood by maintaining a higher blood pressure as well as reducing blood supply to less-essential areas, such as toes or the kidneys, to keep the heart and brain receiving enough blood. 

Preventing heart failure

To reduce your risk of developing heart failure, it is important to focus on developing a heart-healthy lifestyle. This can include: 

  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight by eating right and staying physically active
  • Managing stress
  • Controlling any existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol

What are symptoms of heart failure?

“Heart failure can develop slowly over time or come on quickly,” says Dr. Gumber. She goes on to explain that symptoms may vary based on the part of the heart that is failing. Usually, the left side of the heart (specifically the left ventricle) is affected first. But the right side can also fail. Symptoms may include: 

  • Shortness of breath both during activity and when resting
  • Feeling tired and weak and unable to do normal activities
  • Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
  • Swelling in legs, ankles or feet
  • Rapid weight gain from fluid buildup
  • Persistent cough wheezing — possibly producing pink or white mucus
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and/or lack of appetite

Call 911 for chest pain, fainting or sudden shortness of breath.

What causes heart failure?

There are many possible causes of heart failure. They include: 

  • Heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Obesity
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart defects
  • High blood pressure
  • Use of tobacco or illicit drugs
  • Some cancer treatments

After a diagnosis of heart failure

Heart failure is a chronic condition. For some individuals the condition can be reversed if the underlying cause, such as an abnormal heart rhythm, is fixed. But for most people heart failure is a condition they will manage for the rest of their lives. In these cases, treatment is focused on managing the symptoms and improving the heart as much as possible.  

Treatment approaches to heart failure can include medication and surgery.


The medications your provider prescribes will depend on the underlying cause of the heart failure as well as the symptoms. It is important to take all of the medications as directed by your physician.


Sometimes the underlying cause of heart failure can be addressed with surgery. Surgical options include open-heart surgery (coronary bypass) or a valve repair.  

Other surgeries are done to support the patient’s heart with a device that is similar to a pacemaker (called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, or ICD) or a circulatory support device (called a ventricular assist device, or VAD). 

When some individuals have extreme heart failure, a heart transplant is a potential treatment.

To discuss your cardiovascular risk factors, talk to your primary care provider or cardiologist. To see a Riverside primary care provider, call 757-534-5352 to make an appointment or ask if you can be seen safely through a secure video visit. To make an appointment with a Riverside cardiologist, please call the location nearest you.

Eastern Shore Clinic: 757-302-2700
Hampton Clinic: 757-827-7754
Port Warwick Clinic: 757-873-0360
Riverside Regional Medical Center Clinic: 757-594-2074
Williamsburg Clinic: 757-259-9540

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