When some people experience heart failure, the heart struggles to pump sufficient blood to support other bodily organs. In others, the heart muscle may become harder and less supple, which can prevent or reduce blood flow to the heart. Heart failure can affect both sides of the heart at once, or just the right or left side. Heart failure can be described as acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing).
Heart failure is more common in men, but the risk of fatality is higher in women when the condition is left untreated.
Receiving early treatment for this serious medical condition increases your chances of long-term recovery with fewer complications. If you experience heart failure symptoms, call a doctor at once.
Symptoms of heart failure
The symptoms of acute heart failure can occur suddenly but then ease fairly quickly. This condition is often experienced following a heart attack, but it could also be symptomatic of problems relating to the heart valves controlling the blood flow within the heart.
However, in the vast majority of cases, the symptoms of chronic heart failure are continuous and unchanging.
Heart failure symptoms can include:
- extreme fatigue
- rapid weight gain
- a loss of appetite
- a persistent cough
- irregular pulse
- heart palpitations
- abdominal swelling
- shortage of breath
- swelling of the leg and ankle
- protruding neck veins
Causes of heart failure
Heart failure is mostly related to another disease or illness. Coronary artery disease, which results in a narrowing of the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to the heart, is the most common cause of heart failure. Several other conditions have the potential to prompt heart failure, including:
- cardiomyopathy – a heart muscle disorder that weakens the heart
- a congenital (inherited) heart defect
- a heart attack
- heart valve disease
- certain kinds of arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm)
- high blood pressure
- emphysema (a lung disease)
- an underactive or overactive thyroid
- severe forms of anaemia (red blood cell deficiency)
- some cancer treatments (e.g. chemotherapy)
- alcohol and drug abuse
Diagnosis of heart failure
An echocardiogram, which uses ultrasound to create detailed images of your heart, is the most commonly used method of diagnosing heart failure. This may be used in conjunction with other test procedures, such as:
- chest X-rays of your heart and the adjacent organs.
- an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures heart rhythm and electrical activity.
- an MRI scan, which creates heart images, but without using radiation.
- a coronary catheterization or angiogram to investigate the blood flow through the heart.
- a stress exam to monitor your heart during exercise.
- electrode patches and a Holter monitor to record heart activity.
You may also undergo an examination to check for the physical signs of heart failure.
Treatment of heart failure
Heart failure is treated according to its severity. Early treatment can make fairly quick improvements to your symptoms, though you will then be tested regularly (every three to six months). The primary aim of treatment is to extend your lifespan.
Medication can help to relieve symptoms and stabilise your condition during the early phases of your heart failure treatment.
Different medications can:
- boost your heart’s pumping ability
- reduce blood clots
- control your heart rate, if required
- extract excess sodium and top up potassium levels
- lower cholesterol
Always discuss any new medications with your doctor first. Certain types (e.g. naproxen and ibuprofen) should never be used if you have had heart failure.
Some people who experience heart failure will need surgery.
The options include:
- a coronary bypass that surgically connects a section of healthy artery to allow bloodflow around a blocked or damaged artery.
- an angioplasty procedure, which uses a tiny, inflatable balloon to reopen an artery, and a wire mesh support to prevent any subsequent narrowing.
- a pacemaker to control your heart rhythms.
Donor heart transplants are considered in the final phases of heart failure if all other treatments have proved ineffective.
Chances of recovery from heart failure
Your doctor will provide you with guidelines. Once you feel better, you should be able to slowly resume your regular activities. A return to work will be subject to your general health and symptoms, and the speed of your recovery.
Prevention of heart failure
A healthy lifestyle can both prevent and help to treat heart failure. Losing weight and taking regular exercise can appreciably lower your risk of heart failure – as can reducing the amount of salt in your diet.
Other healthy lifestyle changes you can make include:
- reducing alcohol consumption
- stopping smoking
- avoiding high-fat foods
- getting enough sleep