AMARILLO Congestive heart failure sounds fatal, but is actually a treatable condition, according to a Texas Cooperative Extension specialist.
“Congestive heart failure means your heart cannot pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs,” said Andrew B. Crocker, Extension gerontology specialist.
The heart is still working, Crocker said, just not as effectively as it should.
The condition occurs when the atrium, which takes blood into the heart, or the ventricle, which pumps the blood out, loses the ability to keep up with the amount of blood flow, he said.
If the left ventricle loses the ability to pump normally, the heart cannot pump with enough force to push enough blood into circulation, Crocker said. If the ventricle loses its ability to relax normally because the muscle has become stiff, the heart cannot properly fill with blood during the resting period between each beat.
In either case, blood coming into the left chamber from the lungs may “back up,” causing fluid to leak into the lungs, a condition called pulmonary edema, he said.
When the right side loses pumping power, blood backs up in the body’s veins, usually causing swelling in the legs and ankles.
This “backing up” or “congestion”, which develops over time, is where the term “congestive heart failure” originates.
Common signs or symptoms of congestive heart failure include: fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, persistent cough or wheezing, swelling in legs, ankles and feet, abdominal swelling, sudden weight gain from fluid retention, lack of appetite, nausea and irregular or rapid heartbeat.
A single risk factor may be enough to cause heart failure, but a combination of factors dramatically increases the risk, Crocker said. Risk factors include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, alcohol abuse and kidney failure, to name a few.
“Using a stethoscope, your health provider can listen to your lungs for sounds of congestion,” he said. “The stethoscope also picks up abnormal heart sounds that may suggest heart failure.”
One or more tests may be recommended to diagnose heart failure, including a chest x-ray, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram and cardiac catheterization, among others, Crocker said. Patients may also be referred to a cardiologist.
“Congestive heart failure is treatable in most cases,” he said. “Your health provider will initially try to treat the underlying diseases or conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, which are causing your heart failure.”
The treatment for heart failure may include:
– Lifestyle Changes: Follow a diet low in salt. Limit fluids. Weigh every day and let a health care provider know right away about sudden weight gain. Exercise as directed to help build up your fitness level and ability to be more active.
– Medications: Medicines may be prescribed to help improve heart function and symptoms. The main medicines are diuretics to help reduce fluid buildup in the lungs and swelling in the feet and ankles; inhibitors to lower blood pressure and reduce heart strain; beta blockers to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure; and Digoxin to make the heart beat stronger and pump more blood.
– Surgery: Severe heart failure may make the patient a candidate for a mechanical heart pump or heart transplant.
“Although many cases of heart failure cannot be reversed, treatment can usually improve symptoms and help you live longer,” Crocker said. “Pay attention to your body and how you feel, and tell your health provider when you are feeling better or worse.”
For more information, visit the congestive heart failure information page offered by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Hf/HF_WhatIs.html