Heart failure does not mean the heart lacks the ability to function at all, but simply its inability to function normally. The term often describes a heart that is incapable of maintaining a normal workload meaning that the body might be deprived of much-needed oxygen. Some doctors refer to this condition as congenital heart failure, a condition that typically requires timely medical attention.
Heart failure involves multiple conditions suffered by some individuals who might experience the organ muscle not being able to pump sufficient amounts of blood throughout the bloodstream with adequate force. Others might experience a heart muscle that cannot fill with sufficient amounts of blood to be pumped. In some cases, the patient has both problems.
Typically, the condition develops slowly and progressively as the pumping action of the heart muscle grows weaker. The condition might only affect one portion of the heart – either the right side or the left side. However, most cases involve a weakening action on both the left and the right side of the heart.
Causes of Heart Failure
Heart failure is often the result of an overworked heart muscle or damaged heart tissue. As the condition progresses, the heart muscle weakens, diminishing its ability to fill up or pump blood normally. During the failing states, the weakened tissue releases certain substances in proteins in the bloodstream that can have a toxic effect on blood flow in the heart muscle, causing the heart failure condition to become even worse. The many causes of heart failure include:
- Diabetes – When the patient's blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high, the body lacks the ability to produce sufficient amounts of insulin or properly use the insulin in the bloodstream. Over time, the body's elevated blood sugar levels can cause significant damage to the heart muscle and blood vessels and weaken the organ to the point of failure.
- Cardiomyopathy – Infections, blood flow, and artery problems along with drug and alcohol abuse can cause heart muscle damage including cardiomyopathy as can genetic issues and other diseases.
- Coronary Heart Disease – Waxy plaque buildup on the interior of coronary arteries causes blood flow to be restricted by narrowing arteries, which allows a clot to form and completely or partially block the flow of blood. Even a mild case of coronary heart disease can produce discomfort/chest pain (angina), heart damage, or a heart attack.
- Another Heart Disease or Condition – Other diseases and conditions can cause heart failure including arrhythmias, heart valve disease, congenital heart defects, and cardiomyopathy when the heart muscle becomes rigid, thickened or enlarged.
- High Blood Pressure – If blood pressure is unchecked and increases over time, the added pressure of blood on the arterial walls can result in plaque buildup and a weakening heart.
- Other Risk Factors – Many patients suffer from heart failure due to factors other than those listed above. These include:
- The ravishing effects of HIV/AIDS
- Illegal drug, especially cocaine, use and alcohol abuse
- Thyroid disorder when the body produces too little or too much thyroid hormone
- Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer
- Elevated levels of Vitamin E intake
Heart Failure Warning Signs and Symptoms
Heart failure does not have to be a debilitating disease. With the right treatment and changes to lifestyle choices along with routine monitoring of symptoms, the patient can improve the quality of their life and extend their longevity. However, there are serious warning signs that the heart is failing that require immediate medical attention that include:
- Intense chest pain that persists even after taking glyceryl trinitrate (nitroglycerin)
- Persistent severe shortness of breath
- Regularly waking from sleep caused by an uncontrollable shortness of breath
- Rapid weight gain
- Increasing fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Increased swelling of ankles and legs
- Worsening cough
- Intense pain or swelling of the abdomen
- Confusion, impaired thinking
- Elevated heart rate including heart palpitations or a throbbing racing sensation
Diagnosing Heart Failure
Before a doctor conclusively diagnoses heart failure, they have to take a comprehensive family and personal medical history along with a complete physical examination and blood test. The doctor will test for coronary heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure to rule out many of the symptoms associated with these diseases as the cause for a failing heart. Early diagnosis and following an effective treatment plan can help individuals suffering from heart failure live a more active and longer life.
- Personal/Family/Medical History – The doctor will determine if a genetic predisposition for other factor found in a medical, family, or personal history is the cause of heart failure. Answers by the patient can help determine symptoms, how long they have been endured and their severity.
- Complete Physical Examination – The doctor will perform a physical examination by listening to the heart to detect abnormal sounds, listen to the lungs to listen for excessive fluid buildup and look for any signs of the feet, ankles, abdomen, legs or the veins in the back of the neck. As a part of the examination, the doctor will perform diagnostic testing, and electrocardiogram (EKG), chest x-ray, blood test, Doppler ultrasound, cardiac catheterization, coronary angiogram the, stress test, thyroid function tests and others.
The diagnostician will review the test results before making the determination that the patient is experiencing heart failure. If the condition is accurately diagnosed, the treatment can produce a successful outcome and enhance the patient's quality of life.
Treating Heart Failure
Successful treatments of heart failure depend on more than just taking medication prescribed by a doctor. Effective strategies can diminish many of the warning signs and indicators of heart failure and allow the patient to better manage their condition. Usually, the doctor will recommend numerous options for treating the condition including:
- Changes in Lifestyle Choices – The doctor may recommend various changes in daily routines and habits. Some of these changes could include:
- Lose or maintain weight
- Track daily fluid intake
- Avoid consuming alcohol
- Manage stress
- Remain physically active
- Consistently eat heart healthy diet
- Monitor blood pressure levels
- Vaccinate against pneumonia and flu
- Receive sufficient rest
- Drugs – The doctor can recommend a variety of medications to treat heart failure that includes ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, adenoreceptor neprilysin inhibitors, aldosterone antagonists, diuretics, anticoagulants, statins (cholesterol-lowering medications), and others.
- Surgical Procedures – Some patients require a heart transplantation if the progressive heart failing condition has become so severe that a transplant is the only option left. However, the doctor may perform angioplasty (in percutaneous coronary intervention) when there is a blockage in the coronary artery restricting blood flow supply to the heart muscle. The patient might also require a valve replacement when the valve is become diseased or defective and no longer properly regulates the flow of blood through the heart. Others undergo coronary artery bypass surgery to allow the flow of blood around blocked areas in the arteries.
- Medical Devices – Doctors might recommend an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, cardiac resynchronization therapy, or another device to regulate heartbeat and rhythm.
Treating heart failure requires the patient and caregivers to actively monitor any changes involving previously reported symptoms. Early detection and discussions with healthcare professionals before the symptoms become significantly worse can enhance the quality of life for the patient and relieve many of the common ailments associated with the disease.