Heart Failure

Heart failure means that your heart can't pump enough blood around your body. Heart failure is a serious condition, but in some cases it's temporary, and there may be ways to reverse it. In most cases, though, at least some of the heart damage is permanent.

Causes

Many health conditions that weaken or overwork the heart can cause heart failure. A health condition may keep your heart from squeezing as hard as it should.

Health conditions that can cause heart failure include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Heart valve problems, and
  • Heart muscle problems that are present at birth or caused by infection or toxins

Heart failure can affect both sides of your heart, or just one side. Your heart may not pump enough blood to your lungs to pick up enough oxygen.

Your heart also may not pump enough oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of your body. This can cause the body to hold on to water, and let fluid build up in your body and in your lungs.

Symptoms

Sometimes heart failure doesn't cause any symptoms, especially if it isn't severe. But it often causes these common symptoms:

  • Feeling out of breath with a small amount of activity
  • Feeling out of breath when trying to lie flat
  • Waking up in the middle of the night feeling very short of breath
  • Feeling tired a lot, and
  • Having swelling, especially in the legs, belly, and blood vessels of the neck

Be sure to tell your health care provider right away if your symptoms get worse. Your provider will ask you to weigh yourself every day and watch for sudden weight gain, which can be a sign of worsening heart failure.

Diagnosis

To find out if heart failure is causing your symptoms, your health care provider may do certain tests. You might need an electrocardiogram, which is a test that looks at your heart's electrical rhythm. You may also have an echocardiogram. This is a test that uses sound waves to see how well your heart works.

A chest X-ray can show if your heart is enlarged or if there is fluid in your lungs.

Sometimes blood tests can help find the cause of heart failure.

Your health care provider might also want to see how your heart performs during exercise. You might need other tests, too.

Treatment

Your health care provider will work with you to find the best treatment for your symptoms and to keep your heart failure from getting worse. You may also need to treat the cause of your heart failure.

Lifestyle changes are an important part of treatment. Your health care provider may recommend a diet that is low in salt. He or she may also ask you to limit the amount of fluid you drink.

Losing weight, staying physically active, and quitting smoking can also help.

You will likely get prescription medications to treat your heart failure. One common type of medication is a diuretic. Diuretics help your body get rid of excess fluid.

You may also be prescribed an ACE ["ace"] inhibitor. This is a drug to reduce your blood pressure. Other drugs may help decrease how hard your heart needs to work.

Depending on the cause of your heart failure, your health care provider may recommend a procedure or surgery to help your heart. Your provider can tell you more about the best options for your heart failure.

Things to Remember

Heart failure means that your heart can't pump as much blood as it should.
Different health conditions can cause heart failure.
You may need lifestyle changes, medications, or procedures to help treat your heart failure.
Work closely with your health care provider to treat your heart failure. Together you can help improve your symptoms and quality of life.

What We Have Learned

Heart failure means that your heart doesn't work at all. True or false? The answer is false. Heart failure just means your heart doesn't pump blood as well as it should.

You might have shortness of breath from heart failure. True or false? The answer is true. Heart failure reduces the amount of oxygen in your body and can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, making it harder to catch your breath.