Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition in which the heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood, resulting in slower movement of blood through the heart and body and increased pressure in the heart. A number of underlying conditions can cause CHF by damaging the heart muscle. Some conditions that lead to CHF can be reversed and others can be controlled, and treatment goals generally include addressing its underlying causes, slowing progression of CHF, and improving symptoms.
About Congestive Heart Failure
Common causes of CHF include coronary artery disease, with clogged arteries slowing blood flow to the heart; myocardial infarction, commonly called a heart attack; angina; and cardiomyopathy, which is damage to the heart caused by issues other than blood flow problems, such as infections. Conditions that place undue strain on the heart can also cause CHF, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Heart valve problems
- Thyroid disease
- Kidney disease
- Congenital heart defects
While for many the causes of CHF can be clearly identified as one or more of these conditions, for others the reasons for the development of this chronic heart disease are unclear.
In its early stages, CHF may present no symptoms. As the disease progresses, however, symptoms ranging from mild to severe in intensity generally begin to appear and may include:
- Lung congestion – As heart function declines, fluid can begin to build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath with exercise and/or breathing difficulty at rest or while lying flat, as well as a dry cough and/or wheezing.
- Fluid retention – As kidneys receive less blood, their function can become impaired, allowing excessive fluid retention in the body. This can result in edema, which presents as swelling in the ankles, legs, and/or abdomen.
- Fatigue, weakness, dizziness – Inadequate blood flow to the body can cause a person to feel chronically weak and tired, and reduced blood flow to the brain can cause dizziness and/or confusion.
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat – Often, the heart will try to compensate for inefficient blood output by beating more rapidly, which can lead to a dangerously high or irregular heart rate.
Living with Congestive Heart Failure
If you have been diagnosed with CHF, the most important step you can take to cope with this condition is to work closely with your doctor to minimize its symptoms and complications. Treatment will vary according to the underlying causes of your CHF but typically includes medications such as diuretics, heart medications, and medications to treat high cholesterol or high blood pressure, among others. It is essential that these are taken exactly as directed to relieve symptoms and slow progression of the disease.
Lifestyle changes are virtually always a component of CHF treatment and may include weight loss, dietary changes (especially minimizing sodium or salt in your diet), appropriate exercise, smoking cessation, avoidance of alcohol, and stress management. You will likely be instructed to monitor important symptoms of the disease, especially fluid retention. This is done by weighing yourself daily to watch for sudden weight gain – a telltale sign of fluid buildup – keeping records of fluid intake and output, and watching for signs of fluid in the lungs, such as increasing breathing difficulties.
Since lifestyle changes and other aspects of self-care are vital to slowing the progression of CHF, your doctor may refer you to a cardiac rehab program for help and education on these matters. If so, take advantage of the opportunity – it can go a long way towards helping you learn how to minimize your symptoms and maximize your quality of life.