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When the heart muscle can’t keep pace with the body’s requirements for blood and oxygen, heart failure sets in. Also called congestive heart failure, heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition which can affect the heart’s left side, right side or both sides. Generally, it affects the left side first.

Here’s what may initially happen when the heart’s workload exceeds its pumping capacity:

  • Size Increase: As the heart struggles to pump more blood, it stretches and grows bigger.
  • Muscle Mass Increases: As the heart grows in size, its contracting cells get bigger. This allows the heart to pump more blood – at least for a time.
  • Pumping Speed Increases. When the heart pumps faster, more blood and oxygen are circulated

The body also adjusts to the heart’s limitations in other ways:

  • The blood vessels begin to narrow. This helps to increase blood pressure in an effort to compensate for the heart’s lack of power.
  • The body reroutes blood away from less vital tissues and organs (such as the lungs or kidneys), and sends it to the heart and brain.

Unfortunately, though, these measures only work temporarily and heart failure continues to progress. Often, heart failure has been developing for years without being diagnosed – a compelling reason for regular visits to your doctor.


Heart Failure Symptoms

If you experience any of these symptoms, your body could be asking you for help:

  •          Shortness of breath (dyspnea) when you exert yourself or when you lie down
  •          Fatigue and weakness
  •          Swelling (edema) in your legs, ankles and feet
  •          Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  •          Reduced ability to exercise
  •          Persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm
  •          Increased need to urinate at night
  •          Swelling of your abdomen (ascites)
  •          Very rapid weight gain from fluid retention
  •          Lack of appetite and nausea
  •          Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
  •          Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus
  •          Chest pain if your heart failure is caused by a heart attack

See your doctor promptly if you think you may be experiencing heart failure. Don’t self-diagnose, and call 911 immediately if you experience:

  •          Chest pain
  •          Fainting or severe weakness
  •          Rapid or irregular heartbeat associated with shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting
  •          Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus

While heart failure may be the root cause of these symptoms, there are many other possible causes—some of which are life-threatening. Don’t delay in getting medical help.


Heart Failure Medications

If you have heart failure, you may need multiple medications. Or, your cardiologist may recommend a different treatment. You and your doctor will determine, based on your condition, what medications may or may not be appropriate and effective for you.

Your relationship with your cardiologist is key to your recovery. Don’t hesitate to ask any and all questions you may have about your medication(s) and/or treatment plan. 


Heart Failure Treatments

ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator)

An ICD monitors your heart rhythm 24/7. If your heartbeat is irregular, too slow or too fast, the device starts by sending brief, painless electrical signals that should regulate your heart rate. But if the irregularities in your heartbeat continue, the defibrillator delivers a shock to restore your heart to a normal rate. Your cardiologist will program your ICD to provide the most effective treatment for your specific heart failure condition.

CRT (cardiac resynchronization therapy)

In some heart failure cases, the upper and lower chambers of the heart aren’t beating together. A CRT device sends small electrical impulses to both lower chambers of the heart to help them beat together in a more synchronized pattern. This has been clinically proven to improve the heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen to your body. Another advantage of CRT is that your doctor can monitor your heart device using an external computer, which assists in ensuring your treatment is effective.