What Is Heart Failure?
CHF or heart failure occurs when the myocardium is unable to pump sufficiently enough to meet the metabolic demands of the body. Most frequently occurs in the left ventricle of the heart. But may also happen in the right ventricle. More often however, left sided heart failure occurs first.
Heart Failure (CHF) is the result of an acute or chronic cardiopulmonary problem, such as systemic hypertension, myocardial infarction, pulmonary hypertension, dysrhythmias, valvular heart disease, pericarditis, and cardiomyopathy.
The New York Heart Association’s functional classification scale indicating how little, or how much, activity it takes to make the client symptomatic (chest pain, shortness-of-breath).
Class I: Client exhibits no symptoms with activity.
Class II: Client has symptoms with ordinary exertion.
Class III: Client displays symptoms with minimal exertion.
Class IV: Client has symptoms at rest.
Heart failure is a very common condition. About 5.1 million people in the United States have heart failure.
Currently, heart failure has no cure. However, treatments—such as medicines and lifestyle changes—can help people who have the condition live longer and more active lives. Researchers continue to study new ways to treat heart failure and its complications.
• Congestive heart failure.
• Left-side heart failure. This is when the heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body.
• Right-side heart failure. This is when the heart can’t fill with enough blood.
• Cor pulmonale. This term refers to right-side heart failure caused by high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries and right ventricle (lower right heart chamber).
What Causes Heart Failure?
The most common causes of heart failure are coronary heart disease (CHD), high blood pressure, and diabetes . Treating these problems can prevent or improve heart failure.
Coronary Heart Disease
CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque (plak) builds up inside the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle.
Plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart muscle. The buildup of plaque also makes it more likely that blood clots will form in your arteries. Blood clots can partially or completely block blood flow.
CHD can lead to chest pain or discomfort called angina (an-JI-nuh or AN-juh-nuh), a heart attack, heart damage, or even death.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can weaken your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time. (The mmHg is millimeters of mercury—the units used to measure blood pressure.) If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg or higher.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s blood glucose (sugar) level is too high. The body normally breaks down food into glucose and then carries it to cells throughout the body. The cells use a hormone called insulin to turn the glucose into energy.
In diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use its insulin properly. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage and weaken the heart muscle and the blood vessels around the heart, leading to heart failure.
Other diseases and conditions also can lead to heart failure, such as:
• Cardiomyopathy (KAR-de-o-mi-OP-ah-thee), or heart muscle disease. Cardiomyopathy may be present at birth or caused by injury or infection.
• Heart valve disease. Problems with the heart valves may be present at birth or caused by infection, heart attack, or damage from heart disease.
• Arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), or irregular heartbeats. These heart problems may be present at birth or caused by heart disease or heart defects.
• Congenital (kon-JEN-ih-tal) heart defects. These problems with the heart’s structure are present at birth.
Other factors also can injure the heart muscle and lead to heart failure. Examples include:
• Treatments for cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy
• Thyroid disorders (having either too much or too little thyroid hormone in the body)
• Alcohol abuse or cocaine and other illegal drug use
• Too much vitamin E
Heart damage from obstructive sleep apnea may worsen heart failure. Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep.
Sleep apnea can deprive your heart of oxygen and increase its workload. Treating this sleep disorder might improve heart failure.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?
The most common signs and symptoms of heart failure are:
• Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
• Fatigue (tiredness)
• Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck
All of these symptoms are the result of fluid buildup in your body. When symptoms start, you may feel tired and short of breath after routine physical effort, like climbing stairs.
As your heart grows weaker, symptoms get worse. You may begin to feel tired and short of breath after getting dressed or walking across the room. Some people have shortness of breath while lying flat.
Fluid buildup from heart failure also causes weight gain, frequent urination, and a cough that’s worse at night and when you’re lying down. This cough may be a sign of acute pulmonary edema (e-DE-ma). This is a condition in which too much fluid builds up in your lungs. The condition requires emergency treatment.
Heart Failure Signs and Symptoms
No single test can diagnose heart failure. If you have signs and symptoms of heart failure, your doctor may recommend one or more tests.
Your doctor also may refer you to a cardiologist. A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart diseases and conditions.
An EKG is a simple, painless test that detects and records the heart’s electrical activity. The test shows how fast your heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). An EKG also records the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through your heart.
An EKG may show whether the walls in your heart’s pumping chambers are thicker than normal. Thicker walls can make it harder for your heart to pump blood. An EKG also can show signs of a previous or current heart attack.
Chest X Ray
A chest x ray takes pictures of the structures inside your chest, such as your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. This test can show whether your heart is enlarged, you have fluid in your lungs, or you have lung disease.
BNP Blood Test
This test checks the level of a hormone in your blood called BNP. The level of this hormone rises during heart failure.
Echocardiography (echo) uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart. The test shows the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves work.
Echo also can identify areas of poor blood flow to the heart, areas of heart muscle that aren’t contracting normally, and heart muscle damage caused by lack of blood flow.
Echo might be done before and after a stress test (see below). A stress echo can show how well blood is flowing through your heart. The test also can show how well your heart pumps blood when it beats.
A Doppler ultrasound uses sound waves to measure the speed and direction of blood flow. This test often is done with echo to give a more complete picture of blood flow to the heart and lungs.
Doctors often use Doppler ultrasound to help diagnose right-side heart failure.
A Holter monitor records your heart’s electrical activity for a full 24- or 48-hour period, while you go about your normal daily routine.
You wear small patches called electrodes on your chest. Wires connect the patches to a small, portable recorder. The recorder can be clipped to a belt, kept in a pocket, or hung around your neck.
Nuclear Heart Scan
A nuclear heart scan shows how well blood is flowing through your heart and how much blood is reaching your heart muscle.
During a nuclear heart scan, a safe, radioactive substance called a tracer is injected into your bloodstream through a vein. The tracer travels to your heart and releases energy. Special cameras outside of your body detect the energy and use it to create pictures of your heart.
A nuclear heart scan can show where the heart muscle is healthy and where it’s damaged.
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is a type of nuclear heart scan. It shows the level of chemical activity in areas of your heart. This test can help your doctor see whether enough blood is flowing to these areas. A PET scan can show blood flow problems that other tests might not detect.
During cardiac catheterization (KATH-eh-ter-ih-ZA-shun), a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck and threaded to your heart. This allows your doctor to look inside your coronary (heart) arteries.
During this procedure, your doctor can check the pressure and blood flow in your heart chambers, collect blood samples, and use x rays to look at your coronary arteries.
Coronary angiography (an-jee-OG-rah-fee) usually is done with cardiac catheterization. A dye that can be seen on x ray is injected into your bloodstream through the tip of the catheter.
The dye allows your doctor to see the flow of blood to your heart muscle.
Angiography also shows how well your heart is pumping.
Some heart problems are easier to diagnose when your heart is working hard and beating fast. During stress testing, you exercise to make your heart work hard and beat fast.
You may walk or run on a treadmill or pedal a bicycle. If you can’t exercise, you may be given medicine to raise your heart rate.
Heart tests, such as nuclear heart scanning and echo, often are done during stress testing.
Cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses radio waves, magnets, and a computer to create pictures of your heart as it’s beating. The test produces both still and moving pictures of your heart and major blood vessels.
A cardiac MRI can show whether parts of your heart are damaged. Doctors also have used MRI in research studies to find early signs of heart failure, even before symptoms appear.
Thyroid Function Tests
Thyroid function tests show how well your thyroid gland is working. These tests include blood tests, imaging tests, and tests to stimulate the thyroid. Having too much or too little thyroid hormone in the blood can lead to heart failure.
How Is Heart Failure Treated?
Early diagnosis and treatment can help people who have heart failure live longer, more active lives. Treatment for heart failure will depend on the type and stage of heart failure (the severity of the condition).
The goals of treatment for all stages of heart failure include:
• Treating the condition’s underlying cause, such as coronary heart disease (CHD),high blood pressure, or diabetes
• Reducing symptoms
• Stopping the heart failure from getting worse
• Increasing your lifespan and improving your quality of life
Treatments usually include lifestyle changes, medicines, and ongoing care. If you have severe heart failure, you also may need medical procedures or surgery.
Simple changes can help you feel better and control heart failure. The sooner you make these changes, the better off you’ll likely be.
A Heart Healthy Diet
Following a heart healthy diet is an important part of managing heart failure. In fact, not having a proper diet can make heart failure worse. Ask your doctor and health care team to create an eating plan that works for you.
A healthy diet includes a variety of vegetables and fruits. It also includes whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and protein foods, such as lean meats, eggs, poultry without skin, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, and peas.
A healthy diet is low in sodium (salt) and solid fats (saturated fat and trans fatty acids). Too much salt can cause extra fluid to build up in your body, making heart failure worse. Saturated fat and trans fatty acids can cause unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, which are a risk factor for heart disease.
A healthy diet also is low in added sugars and refined grains. Refined grains come from processing whole grains, which results in a loss of nutrients (such as dietary fiber). Examples of refined grains include white rice and white bread.
A balanced, nutrient-rich diet can help your heart work better. Getting enough potassium is important for people who have heart failure. Some heart failure medicines deplete the potassium in your body. Lack of potassium can cause very rapid heart rhythms that can lead to sudden death.
Potassium is found in foods like white potatoes and sweet potatoes, greens (such as spinach), bananas, many dried fruits, and white beans and soybeans.
Talk with your health care team about getting the correct amount of potassium. Too much potassium also can be harmful.
For more information about following a healthy diet, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s “Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate.gov Web site. Both resources provide general information about healthy eating.
- Fluid Intake
It’s important for people who have heart failure to drink the correct amounts and types of fluid. Drinking too much fluid can worsen heart failure. Also, if you have heart failure, you shouldn’t drink alcohol.
Talk with your doctor about what amounts and types of fluid you should have each day.
Other Lifestyle Changes
Taking steps to control risk factors for CHD, high blood pressure, and diabetes will help control heart failure. For example:
• Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Work with your health care team to lose weight safely.
• Be physically active (as your doctor advises) to become more fit and stay as active as possible.
• Quit smoking and avoid using illegal drugs. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking and drugs can worsen heart failure and harm your health.
• Get enough rest.
Your doctor will prescribe medicines based on the type of heart failure you have, how severe it is, and your response to certain medicines. The following medicines are commonly used to treat heart failure:
• Diuretics (water or fluid pills) help reduce fluid buildup in your lungs and swelling in your feet and ankles.
• ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart. They also may reduce the risk of a future heart attack.
• Aldosterone antagonists trigger the body to get rid of salt and water through urine. This lowers the volume of blood that the heart must pump.
• Angiotensin receptor blockers relax your blood vessels and lower blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
• Beta blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
• Isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine hydrochloride helps relax your blood vessels so your heart doesn’t work as hard to pump blood. Studies have shown that this medicine can reduce the risk of death in African Americans. More studies are needed to find out whether this medicine will benefit other racial groups.
• Digoxin makes the heart beat stronger and pump more blood.
You should watch for signs that heart failure is getting worse. For example, weight gain may mean that fluids are building up in your body. Ask your doctor how often you should check your weight and when to report weight changes.
Getting medical care for other related conditions is important. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, work with your health care team to control these conditions. Have your blood sugar level and blood pressure checked. Talk with your doctor about when you should have tests and how often to take measurements at home.
Try to avoid respiratory infections like the flu and pneumonia. Talk with your doctor or nurse about getting flu and pneumonia vaccines.
Many people who have severe heart failure may need treatment in a hospital from time to time. Your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy (oxygen given through nasal prongs or a mask). Oxygen therapy can be given in a hospital or at home.
Medical Procedures and Surgery
As heart failure worsens, lifestyle changes and medicines may no longer control your symptoms. You may need a medical procedure or surgery.
If you have heart damage and severe heart failure symptoms, your doctor might recommend a cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).
In heart failure, the right and left sides of the heart may no longer contract at the same time. This disrupts the heart’s pumping. To correct this problem, your doctor might implant a CRT device (a type of pacemaker) near your heart.
This device helps both sides of your heart contract at the same time, which can decrease heart failure symptoms.
Some people who have heart failure have very rapid, irregular heartbeats. Without treatment, these heartbeats can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Your doctor might implant an ICD near your heart to solve this problem. An ICD checks your heart rate and uses electrical pulses to correct irregular heart rhythms.
People who have severe heart failure symptoms at rest, despite other treatments, may need:
• A mechanical heart pump, such as a left ventricular assist device. This device helps pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. You may use a heart pump until you have surgery or as a long-term treatment.
• Heart transplant. A heart transplant is an operation in which a person’s diseased heart is replaced with a healthy heart from a deceased donor. Heart transplants are done as a life-saving measure for end-stage heart failure when medical treatment and less drastic surgery have failed.
• Experimental treatments. Studies are under way to find new and better ways to treat heart failure.