What is heart failure?
The heart is a muscle that pumps oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. When
you have heart failure, the heart is not able to pump as well as it should. Blood
and fluid may back up into the lungs (congestive heart failure), and some parts of
the body don’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to work normally. These problems lead
to the symptoms of heart failure.
What causes heart failure?
Heart failure may result from:
Heart valve disease caused by past rheumatic fever or other infections
High blood pressure (hypertension)
Active infections of the heart valves or heart muscle (for example, endocarditis or
Previous heart attack(s) (myocardial infarction)
Coronary artery disease
Cardiomyopathy or another primary disease of the heart muscle
Congenital heart disease or defects (present at birth)
Cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
Chronic lung disease and pulmonary embolism
Excessive sodium (salt) intake
Anemia and excessive blood loss
Complications of diabetes
Certain viral infections
How does heart failure affect the body?
Heart failure interferes with the kidney's normal function of eliminating excess sodium
and waste products from the body. In congestive heart failure, the body retains more
fluid, resulting in swelling of the ankles and legs. Fluid also collects in the lungs,
which can cause shortness of breath. The changing fluid dynamics of the body in heart
failure can also affect the kidneys and the liver.
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
These are the most common symptoms of heart failure:
Shortness of breath during rest, exercise, or while lying flat
Visible swelling of the legs and ankles (due to a buildup of fluid), and, occasionally,
swelling of the abdomen
Fatigue and weakness
Loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain
Persistent cough that can cause blood-tinged sputum
The severity of the condition and symptoms depends on how much of the heart's pumping
capacity has been compromised.
The symptoms of heart failure may look like other conditions or medical problems.
Always talk to your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is heart failure diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a complete medical history and physical exam. Other tests may
Chest X-ray. This test uses electromagnetic energy beams to make images of internal tissues, bones,
and organs onto film. This test shows the size and shape of your heart. Fluid in the
lungs will also show up on X-ray.
Echocardiogram (also called echo). This noninvasive test uses sound waves to evaluate the motion of the heart's chambers
and valves. The echo sound waves create an image on the monitor as an ultrasound transducer
is passed over the heart. This shows how well the heart pumps. It also shows the thickness
of the heart walls, and if the heart is enlarged. It is one of the most useful tests
because it shows a great deal of information about the heart's function and helps
guide treatment decisions.
Electrocardiogram (ECG). This test records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias),
and can sometimes detect heart muscle damage.
BNP testing. B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) is a hormone released from the ventricles that occurs
with heart failure. BNP levels are useful in the rapid evaluation of heart failure.
In general, the higher the BNP levels, the worse the heart failure. BNP is measured
from a blood sample.
Treatment for heart failure
The cause of the heart failure will guide the treatment plan. If the heart failure
is caused by a valve disorder, then surgery may be done to fix the valve. If the heart
failure is caused by a disease, such as anemia, then the underlying disease will be
treated. Although there is no cure for heart failure due to damaged heart muscle,
many forms of treatment have been used to treat symptoms very effectively.
Treatment of heart failure may include the following.
Controlling risk factors
Losing weight (if overweight) and increasing moderate exercise
Restrict salt and fat from the diet
Controlling blood sugar if diabetic
Controlling blood pressure
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. This medicine decreases the pressure inside the blood vessels and reduces the resistance
against which the heart pumps. These also help remodel the heart, which can promote
better pumping ability.
Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB). This is an alternative medicine to reduce workload on the heart if you can't tolerate
ACE inhibitors. Some people develop a cough and need to discontinue ACE inhibitors.
It helps to relax blood vessels, reduce stress on the heart, and helps your body get
rid of salt and fluid.
Angiotensin receptor-neprilysin inhibitors (ARNIs). This new medicine combines an ARB and a neprilysin inhibitor. It helps relax blood
vessels, reduce stress on the heart, and helps your body get rid of salt and fluid.
Sinus node I-f channel blocker. This is a newer medicine that may be used to reduce heart rate, which puts less stress
on the heart.
Diuretics. These reduce the amount of fluid in the body and are among the most important medicines
in helping control fluid buildup in the body.
Vasodilators. These widen (dilate) the blood vessels and reduce workload on the heart.
Digitalis. This medicine helps the heart beat stronger with a more regular rhythm.
Antiarrhythmics. These help maintain normal heart rhythm and help prevent sudden cardiac death.
Beta-blockers. These reduce the heart's tendency to beat faster and reduce workload by blocking
specific receptors on heart cells. They can also promote better pumping over time.
Aldosterone blockers. This medicine blocks the effects of the hormone aldosterone which causes sodium and
Statins. These medicines lowers the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood. While not used
to treat heart failure, your doctor may prescribe a statin if you have high cholesterol
or have had a past heart attack and are at risk for heart failure.
Biventricular pacing/cardiac resynchronization therapy. A type of pacemaker that paces both pumping chambers of the heart at the same time
to coordinate contractions and to improve the heart's function. Some people with heart
failure are candidates for this therapy.
Implantable cardioverter defibrillator. A device similar to a pacemaker that senses when the heart is beating too fast and
delivers an electrical shock to convert the fast rhythm to a normal rhythm. This can
be a life saving device.
Heart transplant. This is replacing the diseased heart with a healthy one from a donor.
Ventricular assist devices (VADs). These are mechanical devices used to take over the pumping function for one or both
of the heart's ventricles, or pumping chambers. A VAD may be needed when heart failure
progresses to the point that medicines and other treatments no longer help.