The Facts About Congestive Heart Failure

Contrary to popular belief, congestive heart failure is not the same thing as cardiac arrest or a heart attack. Congestive heart failure, or simply heart failure, is a condition in which the heart loses its ability to pump blood efficiently. In cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating.

Congestive heart failure almost always happens over a long period of time, and is a result of chronic heart problems. The condition is often limited to one side of the heart or the other, but it can also affect both. Because the pumping action of the heart is diminished, blood may become retained in other areas of the body including the liver, the gastrointestinal tract and the lungs.

When organs don’t receive the proper oxygen and nutrients as a result of congestive heart failure, they can become damaged and they lose their ability to function properly. That is the inherent danger of congestive heart failure; when the heart is unable to pump blood as it should, an unlimited number of other organs can be significantly damaged.

Congestive heart failure often happens as a result of a heart attack, because the heart has been weakened, or because of high blood pressure (also called hypertension). These causes are known as “structural” or “functional” causes, and can also include valvular heart disease, heart tumors, lung disease and dilated cardiomyopathy.

As with many heart-related disorders, congestive heart failure increases in likelihood with age. Other high-risk factors include recreational drug use, smoking, weight gain, and diabetes.

The symptoms of congestive heart failure vary, and may be different from patient-to-patient. The swelling of the feet and the ankles is an early sign, as is the alternate swelling of the abdomen. Patients might also experience irregular nausea and vomiting, insomnia, difficulty breathing during exercise and severe indigestion. A more frequent need to urinate during the night and a decreased ability to concentrate might be other symptoms.

Some patients experience no symptoms at all until they become immunosuppressed with infections, anemia, hyperthyroidism or kidney disease.

If congestive heart failure is a consideration, consult your healthcare provider immediately. Catching this early is imperative, and can mean the difference between recovery and much more severe symptoms.

At the doctor’s office, your physician will probably discover an irregular or rapid heartbeat during the physical examination. He might also notice distended neck veins, an enlarged liver, swelling of the hands, feet, wrists and ankles, and a concentration of fluid in or around the lungs. Sometimes, these are accompanied by “lung crackles” and the blood pressure may be elevated.

Congestive heart failure is a serious condition, and your doctor will want to monitor you closely. He will want to schedule follow-up appointments at regular intervals (at least every three or four months) to observe for any underlying causes. Tests like ultrasounds of your hear (electrocardiogram) will help the doctor monitor how efficiently your heart is pumping blood with every heartbeat.

Your doctor will also want you to take your own vital signs on a regular basis. Keeping a daily record of your weight, temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiration will help the doctor to keep track of your progress, and to pinpoint any abnormal patterns.

To guard yourself against future problems, adhere to the following tips:

– Stop smoking
– Take all medications when and how they are prescribed
– Limit salt intake
– Find a way to get daily exercise (such as walking or riding a stationary bicycle)
– Get sufficient rest

If your condition becomes too severe, hospitalization might be necessary. In extreme cases, the removal of excess fluid through dialysis may be necessary or the implantation of a ventricular assist device. Patients who become dependent upon circulator support will eventually need to undergo a heart transplant.

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