Understanding Heart Failure

Heart failure, put simply, is a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump as well as it should. Nearly 5 million Americans currently suffer from it, and approximately 550,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. So, why does it occur? Unfortunately there’s no straightforward answer to this question—heart failure can stem from a number of factors, including diabetes, obesity, lung disease, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, irregular heartbeats, long standing high blood pressure and more.

A normal, healthy heart pumps plenty of oxygen-rich blood out of the heart and into the system, nourishing the entire body. Signs of heart failure enter the equation when the heart doesn’t eject blood efficiently enough to meet these oxygen demands. The condition can occur suddenly, or it may advance slowly over time.

In order to understand heart failure, we must first examine the two main types: systolic and diastolic. With every heartbeat, the heart contracts and relaxes. Systolic heart failure (the most common type) occurs when the heart doesn’t contract properly due to weakness in the heart muscle, which causes the ventricles to stretch. In the case of diastolic heart failure the heart contracts well, but is unable to relax properly, causing the muscles to thicken and harden.

Both types of heart failure render the heart unable to properly fill with blood, which can cause the blood to accumulate into the lungs, hands, abdomen, legs and feet. This “backing up” of fluid is often referred to as “congestion”, or congestive heart failure.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

-       shortness of breath with little exertion

-       weakness or fatigue with little exertion

-       difficulty sleeping

-       unfamiliar coughing

-       swollen/tender abdomen

-       loss of appetite

-       increased urination at night

-       swelling of feet and legs

The importance of early diagnosis and treatment of this condition can’t be overstated. Further, it’s critical to identify the underlying cause of heart failure in order to determine the best course of treatment, which can range from medications, to device implants to surgeries, depending on the severity of the condition.

We strongly encourage patients to take an active role in controlling their symptoms by taking their medication regularly, monitoring their weight, heart rate and blood pressure, following diet and exercise recommendations and managing stress.

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition; however, patients who proactively monitor their key symptoms and adhere to their treatment plans can drastically improve their outlook for the future.

Have you or someone you love been affected by heart failure? If so, please feel free to share your thoughts or questions with me in the comments.

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