Heart failure is often a long-term (chronic) condition, but it can sometimes develop suddenly. It can be caused by many different heart problems.
The condition may affect only the right side or only the left side of the heart. These are called right-sided heart failure or left-sided heart failure. More often, both sides of the heart are involved.
Heart failure is present when:
Your heart muscle cannot pump (eject) the blood out of the heart very well. This is called systolic heart failure.
Your heart muscles are stiff and do not fill up with blood easily. This is called diastolic heart failure.
These problems mean the heart is no longer able to pump enough oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of your body.
As the heart's pumping becomes less effective, blood may back up in other areas of the body. Fluid may build up in the lungs, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and the arms and legs. This is called congestive heart failure.
The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease (CAD), a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. High blood pressure that is not well controlled may also lead to heart failure.
Other heart problems that may cause heart failure are:
An echocardiogram (echo) is often the best test for heart failure. Your doctor will use it to guide your treatment.
Several other imaging tests can look at how well your heart is able to pump blood, and how much the heart muscle is damaged.
Many blood tests are used to:
Help diagnose and monitor heart failure
Identify risks for heart disease
Look for possible causes of heart failure, or problems that may make your heart failure worse
Monitor for side effects of medicines you may be taking
MONITORING AND SELF CARE
If you have heart failure, your doctor will monitor you closely. You will have follow-up appointments at least every 3 to 6 months, but sometimes much more often. You will also have tests to check your heart function.
Weight gain, especially over a day or two, can be a sign that your body is holding onto extra fluid and your heart failure is getting worse. Talk to your doctor about what you should do if your weight goes up or you develop more symptoms.
Other important changes to make in your lifestyle:
Ask your doctor how much alcohol you may drink.
Do not smoke.
Stay active. Walk or ride a stationary bicycle. Your doctor can provide a safe and effective exercise plan for you. DO NOT exercise on days when your weight has gone up from fluid or you are not feeling well.
Get enough rest, including after exercise, eating, or other activities. This allows your heart to rest too.
MEDICATIONS, SURGERY, AND DEVICES
Your doctor will ask you to take medicines to treat your heart failure. Medicines treat the symptoms, prevent your heart failure from getting worse, and help you live longer. It is very important that you take your medicine as your health care team directed.
Help the heart muscle pump better
Keep your blood from clotting
Lower your cholesterol levels
Open up blood vessels or slow your heart rate so your heart doesn't have to work as hard
It is very important that you take your medicine as your doctor and nurse directed. Do not take any other drugs or herbs without first asking your doctor or nurse about them. Drugs that may make your heart failure worse include:
At a certain point, the health care provider will decide whether it is best to keep treating heart failure. The patient, along with his or her family and doctors, may want to discuss the option of palliative or comfort care at this time.
Often, you can control heart failure by taking medicine, changing your lifestyle, and treating the condition that caused it.
Most cases of heart failure can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle and reducing your risk for heart disease.
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Emanuel LL, Bonow RO. Care of patients with end-stage heart disease. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 34.
Mann DL. Management of heart failure patients with reduced ejection fraction. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 28.
Jessup M, Abraham WT, Casey DE, et al. 2009 focused update: ACCF/AHA Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Heart Failure in Adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines: developed in collaboration with the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation. Circulation. 2009 Apr 14;119(14):1977-2016. Epub 2009 Mar 26.
Michael M. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.