Congestive Heart Failure: Just the FAQs

Congestive Heart FailureWhat Is Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure is a serious condition in which the heart has become too weak to adequately supply the body with blood.

What Causes Congestive Heart Failure?

Any condition that overworks the heart can damage it enough to cause congestive heart failure. This condition might be as sudden as a heart attack or as slow as years of untreated high blood pressure.

What Are the Risk Factors for Congestive Heart Failure?

While genes play a role in heart function, many of the risk factors are related to unhealthy lifestyle choices, including obesity and smoking.

A variety of medical conditions also increase the risk of congestive heart failure. These include:

  • Type II diabetes
  • Amyloidosis, a condition in which the body accumulates abnormal deposits of proteins
  • Hemochromatosis, a condition in which iron accumulates in the body
  • Lupus, an autoimmune disease
  • Anemia, an inadequate number of red blood cells
  • Arrhythmias, any of a variety of abnormal heart rhythms. If the heartbeats too quickly, it can overtax the heart; if it beats too slowly, it may not be able to pump blood to all parts of the body
  • Emphysema, a chronic disease, often caused by smoking, that makes breathing difficult
  • Abnormal thyroid function, including overactive and underactive function
  • Myocarditis, a condition in which the heart muscle is inflamed

What Are the Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure?

  • An irregular heartbeat
  • An unusually rapid heartbeat, even when resting
  • Shortness of breath, especially when lying down
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • A dry cough
  • Water retention

How Is Congestive Heart Failure Diagnosed?

A variety of tests can determine whether a person has congestive heart failure. These include:

  • Blood or urine tests to check for chemical markers of heart failure; red blood cell count; and liver, thyroid, and kidney function. B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) may also be checked. BNP is a heart hormone that is released into the blood if the heart is struggling to function.
  • An electrocardiogram (EKG), which records the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity.
  • A chest x-ray, which can show enlargement of the heart due to its overtaxation, as well as a build-up of fluid in the lungs
  • An echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound measurement of how much blood is being pumped with each beat of the heart. This measurement is called ejection fraction. The lower the ejection fraction, the worse the congestive heart failure.
  • Cardiac MRI or CT scans can create a picture of the arteries and valves in the heart, as well as measure ejection fraction.

How Is Congestive Heart Failure Treated?

While damage to heart function due to congestive heart failure cannot be reversed, there are a variety of treatments that can relieve its symptoms, and keep the condition under control. The choice of treatment will be guided by the conditions that cause the heart failure.

Common medications for congestive heart failure include:

  • Beta-blockers, which improve the heart’s ability to pump blood.
  • Diuretics, which relieve water retention. Diuretics can also relieve the shortness of breath caused by fluid in the lungs.
  • ACE inhibitors, which relax the arteries, making it easier for blood to flow through the body.

Not all cases of congestive heart failure respond to medication, however. In some cases, surgery is indicated.

Common procedures for congestive heart failure include:

  • Coronary artery bypass grafts (CABGs), in which healthy arteries are grafted to provide new pathways for blood flow.
  • Heart valve surgery, which repairs damaged valves.
  • Heart transplants are the treatment of last resort for congestive heart failure. While waiting for a new heart, a hospitalized patient may receive an implantable left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to keep their heart working.

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