Heart failure can be an alarming term. We providers are guilty of using the term rather nonchalantly at times, sparking fear in the minds of our patients. Often I see patients in clinic who have been given a diagnosis of “heart failure” and are understandably concerned about their prognosis.
So what is heart failure? It’s a broad term used to express an abnormality in how the heart functions and its ability to move blood and balance fluid in the body. Symptoms include increasing shortness of breath, difficulty breathing while lying down, increased swelling in the lower legs or abdomen, and rapid weight gain.*
There are two main types of “heart failure” — systolic and diastolic.
Systolic heart failure refers to the heart’s ability to squeeze and pump out adequate blood during each heartbeat. A normal heart pumps out 55 to 60 percent of the blood in the pumping chamber during each heartbeat. A heart that pumps out less than that would be considered to have systolic heart failure.
Diastolic heart failure refers to a number of conditions that could make the heart have more difficulty moving blood effectively. The heart muscle can become stiff over time (due to chronic high blood pressure or other diseases). Heart valves may become stiff or leaky. These issues make it more difficult to move blood appropriately. Sometimes, certain conditions will make the heart beat too fast, also decreasing its ability to move blood efficiently.
In both cases, physicians use medications to support and improve the heart’s function. They look for reasons the heart isn’t beating normally and fix any problems they can.
Fluid balance becomes an important part of managing patients with heart failure. Too much fluid in the body results in the symptoms described above. Medications are used to help get rid of the extra fluid. Sometime if things become too out of balance, hospitalization is required for more aggressive medications.
Regional Health Heart and Vascular Institute has a specialized clinic to help patients with heart failure feel their best and avoid hospitalizations. There are a number of tools available to assist with this.
Of course, the best heart failure is no heart failure. Being proactive with your primary care provider and taking steps to decrease your risk for heart failure should be a priority. Exercise, eating healthy, managing blood pressure and cholesterol, are all steps we can take at any stage to avoid not only heart failure, but a number of health problems. If you have been diagnosed with heart failure, make sure you become an active member of your cardiology team. With the right medical treatment and an attentive medical team, patients can live long, active lives with chronic heart failure.
*If you experience symptoms as described above, please seek medical evaluation as many other conditions have similar symptoms and may not be related to “heart failure”.