Heart failure is a serious type of health condition that is characterized by symptoms such as shortness of breath and/or swelling of the ankles, legs, or other extremities. People with heart failure might be short of breath with activity, or even while lying down. This happens because the heart is not pumping as well as it should and leads to fluid backing up on the lungs or in other areas of your body. It is important to seek medical help if you are experiencing signs or symptoms of heart failure.
The heart works by taking in blood from your body that is low on oxygen. This happens on the right side of the heart. Then, the heart pumps that blood into your lungs, where the blood gets filled back up with oxygen. The oxygen-rich blood flows back into the heart, now on the left side, where it is then pumped out to the rest of your body. This process is so important to the functioning of your entire body. It helps to understand the process of the heart in order to understand heart failure. Heart failure means that this process is not pumping the blood as effectively as it should be. There are different kinds of heart failure. Heart failure can be on the right side of the heart or on the left. Your doctor may call this right-sided or left-sided heart failure. The treatment for heart failure depends on which side of the heart is not doing its job as well as it should be.
Does heart failure mean my heart isn’t working?
Heart failure does not mean that your heart isn’t working. It just means that your heart is not pumping as well as it should be. It is important for your heart to pump effectively for your blood to get to the rest of your body, as we talked about in the previous paragraph.
What causes heart failure?
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), most often, long-term (chronic) heart failure is caused by other heath conditions that damage or overwork your heart. Sometimes heart failure is more sudden, rather than chronic. This is called acute heart failure. Acute failure can be caused by injury, infection, a heart attack, or a blood clot in the lungs per the NHLBI.
Can you prevent heart failure?
The NHLBI does indicate that some lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of developing heart failure. These include working toward a heart-healthy lifestyle (ex. Heart-healthy diet, exercise, quit smoking – see resource 1). Heart failure also can be prevented by limiting alcohol consumption and not using illegal drugs. If you have health conditions that could contribute to heart failure, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, work closely with your health care provider to manage these conditions to reduce the risk of complications like heart failure.
Read our blog about Simple Steps to Improve Heart Health
Is there a cure for heart failure?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for heart failure. However, there are medications and lifestyle changes that can be used to help you live longer and with fewer symptoms of heart failure.
Common symptoms of heart failure
People living with heart failure may experience symptoms such as shortness of breath and/or swelling of the ankles, legs, or other extremities. They might be short of breath with activity, or even while lying down.
Diagnosing heart failure
To diagnose heart failure, your health care provider will need to consider your medical history, a physical exam, and test results. There are blood tests that can indicate the possibility of heart failure. Another exam that is likely to occur in the diagnosis of heart failure is an imaging test called an echocardiogram (echo). The echo shows the health care provider how much blood is pumped out of your heart with each heartbeat. This is measured as an ejection fraction, which is a percent of how much blood is pumped out of the lower left chamber in the heart. This percentage helps guide treatment.
What to do after a heart failure diagnosis
There are some ways to help heart failure without medications, like improving diet, reducing sodium (salt) intake, losing weight, and increasing exercise. It can also help to prevent and control health conditions that lead to heart failure, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and coronary artery disease. However, most people with heart failure require some sort of medication treatment. The medications we use to treat heart failure are aimed at improving quality of life and symptoms, decreasing hospitalizations, and prolonging life.
Medications for heart failure
The medications you are prescribed to treat heart failure depends on the type of heart failure you have and how serious it is. You may be prescribed medicines that help reduce the extra sodium and fluid from your body (diuretics or “water pills”), which help improve the symptoms of heart failure like shortness of breath and swelling. Other medications help reduce the work your heart has to do to improve the effectiveness of your heart and how well it pumps. The medications used for heart failure have been well studied and many have been found to reduce hospitalizations and reduce mortality. For more information on medications for heart failure, see resource 1.
It is important to take your medications as prescribed and follow up with your health care provider regularly if you’re being treated for heart failure or other conditions that can lead to heart failure. Your health care team may include a heart doctor (cardiologist), your primary care doctor, pharmacists, nurses, dietitians, physical therapists, social workers, and/or other members of a cardiac rehabilitation team.
Disclaimer: This blog is written for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen online.