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Heart failure doesn't mean your heart has failed or stopped beating. It means that your heart, which is a muscle that pumps blood to all parts of your body, is not working as well as it should and can't pump as much blood as your body needs. As your heart's pumping action lessens, blood may back up in your lungs, liver, or legs. This can cause shortness of breath, leg swelling (called edema), and other problems. In addition, organs in your body may not get the oxygen and nutrients they need to function properly.
Heart failure is a chronic (ongoing) condition that develops over time. It is usually caused by underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure or heart disease. These conditions damage your heart, making the heart muscle stiff or thick. The damaged muscle either can't relax properly to let the pumping chambers of the heart -- the ventricles -- fill with enough blood, or it can't contract properly to let the ventricles pump out enough blood. The left ventricle is the main pumping chamber, and heart failure usually starts on the left side. When the left ventricle can't contract enough, it's called systolic heart failure. When the left ventricle can't fill with enough blood, it's called diastolic heart failure. You can have a combination of both types of heart failure.
Although some conditions that cause heart failure are irreversible, you can manage the condition and improve your health and quality of life with a combination of lifestyle changes and medications.
People with heart failure should be under the care of a cardiologist.
Signs and Symptoms
You may experience one or more of the following symptoms of chronic heart failure:
The more advanced your heart failure, the more likely you are to have symptoms.
Acute heart failure occurs when something suddenly damages your heart (such as a heart attack, blood clot in the lungs, allergic reaction, or severe infection). Symptoms are similar to those for chronic heart failure, but they are more serious and get worse quickly. Acute heart failure is life threatening, and requires immediate emergency medical attention.
The most common causes of heart failure are high blood pressure and coronary artery (heart) disease. Other causes of heart failure include:
You are at risk for developing heart failure if you:
Your health care provider will take a detailed medical history and perform a physical exam. Your health care provider will examine your heart and lungs, checking for enlargement of the heart and fluid in the lungs. Other signs of heart failure that your health care provider will look for include enlarged neck veins, swelling in your legs or abdomen, and tenderness of the liver. A chest x-ray can help determine if there is fluid on your lungs or enlargement of your heart -- two factors that often go along with heart failure.
After the initial diagnosis, your health care provider will look for the underlying cause of heart failure. Your health care provider may order these tests:
With proper treatment, you can control symptoms of heart failure and improve your health. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, cutting down on salt, and exercising regularly, can improve your condition. Medications are also available to help your heart better pump blood. Complementary and alternative therapies can be helpful, too, when used along with standard medical treatment. Heart failure is a serious condition and you should always seek medical care. Do not take any herbs or supplements without your doctor's supervision.
Carefully monitoring your health and helping to manage your condition makes a big difference in managing heart failure. The results of one study found that healthy lifestyle habits (normal body weight, not smoking, regular exercise, moderate alcohol intake, and consumption of breakfast cereals, and fruits and vegetables) were associated with a lower risk of heart failure. The highest risk was in men adhering to none of the 6 lifestyle factors, and the lowest was among men adhering to 4 or more healthy lifestyle factors. To do this, track your weight on a daily basis. Weight gain can be a sign that you are retaining fluid and that the pump function of your heart is getting worse. Make sure you weigh yourself at the same time each day and on the same scale.
Other important measures include:
Tips to lower your sodium intake
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors -- widen blood vessels and make it easier for your heart to pump blood. Side effects can include chronic cough. ACE inhibitors include:
Angiotension II receptor blockers (ARBs) -- also dilate blood vessels and may be used in people who can't take ACE inhibitors. They include:
Digoxin (Lanoxin) -- helps your heart pump more blood by increasing the strength of its contractions.
Beta-blockers -- slow heart rate and lower blood pressure. Beta-blockers include:
Diuretics (water pills) -- keep fluid from building up in your body by making you urinate more. There are different types of diuretics that can affect potassium and magnesium levels in your body, so your doctor will check your levels frequently.
Isosorbide dinitrate and hydralazine hydrochloride (BiDil) -- BiDil combines two drugs that dilate blood vessels. It is approved for use in African Americans who have heart failure, as an addition to standard therapy.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Heart failure is a serious medical condition and should be treated by conventional medicine. You should never add supplements or complementary and alternative medicine therapies to your regimen unless specifically instructed to do so by your physician. It is best to work with a health care provider trained in the use of nutritional medicine. Many people with heart conditions take multiple medications, including blood-thinning medications, blood pressure medications, and others. The supplements below can interact with these and many other medications and may not be right for people with certain medical conditions. You should use the supplements listed below only under the supervision of your cardiologist, and a doctor who understands the contraindications and interactions associated with these supplements.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. However, herbs can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs only under the supervision of a health care provider. Many people with heart conditions take blood-thinning medications and blood pressure medicines, among others. The supplements below can interact with these and many other medicines, and may not be right for people with certain conditions. These should be used only under the supervision of your cardiologist, and a doctor who understand the contraindications and interactions associated with these supplements.
Prognosis and Complications
Heart failure is a serious disorder that leads to a lower life expectancy. It is generally a chronic illness. But many forms of heart failure can be controlled by treating the underlying causes, making lifestyle changes, and taking medication.
Potential complications include:
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Review Date: 12/22/2013
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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