Managing a failing heart

A diagnosis of congestive heart failure (CHF) can be extremely scary.

Nearly six million Americans live with CHF, which is when the heart can’t adequately pump blood to meet the demands of the body.

Those with CHF know the most common symptom ⁠— shortness of breath. With mild heart failure, this shortness of breath happens mostly with exertion, but as heart failure worsens, the shortness of breath occurs at lower levels of activity or even at rest.

In severe cases of CHF, the heart muscle function deteriorates so badly that fluid backs up into the lungs, creating a life-threatening condition called pulmonary edema.

Heart failure can affect either the right, left or both sides of the heart and usually doesn’t happen suddenly, but gradually worsens over time. As this happens, other symptoms of the condition can include weakness, fatigue, swelling in the extremities, coughing and wheezing, and difficulty keeping up with your normal routine and lifestyle.

Heart failure’s most common causes are damage from a heart attack, severe untreated high blood pressure, blocked or leaking heart valves, disease of the heart muscle itself or damage to the heart from a viral infection.

Fortunately for CHF patients, there are many treatment options based on the stage of the disease.

Diagnosis of heart failure

A physician can often tell from a physical exam if you have CHF based on swelling in your legs and feet, and if they hear fluid in your lungs with a stethoscope. Additional testing will confirm a preliminary diagnosis and might include blood tests, an electrocardiogram (EKG), echocardiogram, chest X-ray, cardiac catheterization, stress test, CT scan or MRI. With this information in hand, a heart failure specialist can put a treatment plan in place.

Treatment options

Many people with early-stage heart failure are excellent candidates for treatment with medications, which widen blood vessels to help lower blood pressure, increase blood flows, control abnormal heart rhythms and help draw excess fluid off your body. Sometimes, you will need to take several medications to help control your CHF.

If your heart failure is caused by blocked vessels or damaged valves, surgery may be recommended to clear the blockages or repair/replace the valve, and if you have an abnormal heart rhythm, it may be recommended that you receive an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), a device similar to a pacemaker.

A patient whose CHF has progressed to more critical stages may be recommended for a ventricular assist device (VAD), which can take over the pumping of the heart and be used both for sick patients waiting for a heart transplant or as a permanent replacement to help their heart function.

The most important thing to remember is that if you are having shortness of breath, seek a specialist diagnosis. If you have heart failure, the sooner you begin treatment, the better your chances are of controlling your symptoms.

For more information about heart failure treatment options, contact Deborah Heart and Lung Center at 855-856-7146 or visit