Heart failure, sometimes known as congestive heart failure, occurs when your heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Certain conditions, such as narrowed arteries in your heart (coronary artery disease) or high blood pressure, gradually leave your heart too weak or stiff to fill and pump efficiently.
Not all conditions that lead to heart failure can be reversed, treatments can improve the signs and symptoms and help you live longer. Lifestyle changes — such as exercising, reducing sodium in your diet, managing stress and losing weight — can improve your quality of life.
Types of heart failure
- Left-sided heart failure: Fluid may back up in your lungs, causing shortness of breath.
- Right-sided heart failure: Fluid may back up into your abdomen, legs and feet, causing swelling.
- Congestive heart failure: This is a combination of both left heart failure and right heart failure.
- Systolic heart failure: The left ventricle can’t contract vigorously, indicating a pumping problem.
- Diastolic heart failure: (also called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction). The left ventricle can’t relax or fill fully, indicating a filling problem.
Heart failure often develops after other conditions have damaged or weakened your heart. However, the heart doesn’t need to be weakened to cause heart failure. It can also occur if the heart becomes too stiff. Any of the following conditions can damage or weaken your heart and can cause heart failure. Some of these can be present without your knowing it:
- Coronary artery disease and heart attack – Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease and the most common cause of heart failure. The disease results from the buildup of fatty deposits (plaque) in your arteries, which reduce blood flow and can lead to heart attack.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) – If your blood pressure is high, your heart has to work harder than it should to circulate blood throughout your body. Over time, this extra exertion can make your heart muscle too stiff or too weak to effectively pump blood.
- Faulty heart valves – The valves of your heart keep blood flowing in the proper direction through the heart. A damaged valve — due to a heart defect, coronary artery disease or heart infection — forces your heart to work harder, which can weaken it over time.
- Damage to the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) – Heart muscle damage (cardiomyopathy) can have many causes, including several diseases, infections, alcohol abuse and the toxic effect of drugs, such as cocaine or some drugs used for chemotherapy. Genetic factors also can play a role.
- Myocarditis – Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle. It’s most commonly caused by a virus and can lead to left-sided heart failure.
- Heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects) – If your heart and its chambers or valves haven’t formed correctly, the healthy parts of your heart have to work harder to pump blood through your heart, which, in turn, may lead to heart failure.
- Abnormal heart rhythms (heart arrhythmias) – Abnormal heart rhythms may cause your heart to beat too fast, creating extra work for your heart. A slow heartbeat also may lead to heart failure.
- Other diseases. Chronic diseases — such as diabetes, HIV, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, or a buildup of iron (hemochromatosis) or protein (amyloidosis) — also may contribute to heart failure.
A single risk factor may be enough to cause heart failure, but a combination of factors also increases your risk, including;
- High blood pressure. Your heart works harder than it has to if your blood pressure is high.
- Coronary artery disease. Narrowed arteries may limit your heart’s supply of oxygen-rich blood, resulting in weakened heart muscle.
- Heart attack. A heart attack is a form of coronary disease that occurs suddenly. Damage to your heart muscle from a heart attack may mean your heart can no longer pump as well as it should.
- Diabetes. Having diabetes increases your risk of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease.
- Some diabetes medications. The diabetes drugs rosiglitazone (Avandia) and pioglitazone (Actos) have been found to increase the risk of heart failure in some people. Don’t stop taking these medications on your own, though. If you’re taking them, discuss with your doctor whether you need to make any changes.
- Certain medications. Some medications may lead to heart failure or heart problems. Medications that may increase the risk of heart problems include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); certain anesthesia medications; some anti-arrhythmic medications; certain medications used to treat high blood pressure, cancer, blood conditions, neurological conditions, psychiatric conditions, lung conditions, urological conditions, inflammatory conditions and infections; and other prescription and over-the-counter medications. Don’t stop taking any medications on your own. If you have questions about medications you’re taking, discuss with your doctor whether he or she recommends any changes.
- Sleep apnea. The inability to breathe properly while you sleep at night results in low blood oxygen levels and increased risk of abnormal heart rhythms. Both of these problems can weaken the heart.
- Congenital heart defects. Some people who develop heart failure were born with structural heart defects.
- Valvular heart disease. People with valvular heart disease have a higher risk of heart failure.
- Viruses. A viral infection may have damaged your heart muscle.
- Alcohol use. Drinking too much alcohol can weaken heart muscle and lead to heart failure.
- Tobacco use. Using tobacco can increase your risk of heart failure.
- Obesity. People who are obese have a higher risk of developing heart failure.
- Irregular heartbeats. These abnormal rhythms, especially if they are very frequent and fast, can weaken the heart muscle and cause heart failure.
If you have heart failure, your outlook depends on the cause and the severity, your overall health, and other factors such as your age. Complications can include:
- Kidney damage or failure – Heart failure can reduce the blood flow to your kidneys, which can eventually cause kidney failure if left untreated. Kidney damage from heart failure can require dialysis for treatment.
- Heart valve problems – The valves of your heart, which keep blood flowing in the proper direction through your heart, may not function properly if your heart is enlarged or if the pressure in your heart is very high due to heart failure.
- Heart rhythm problems – Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) can be a potential complication of heart failure.
- Liver damage – Heart failure can lead to a buildup of fluid that puts too much pressure on the liver. This fluid backup can lead to scarring, which makes it more difficult for your liver to function properly.
The key to preventing heart failure is to reduce your risk factors. You can control or eliminate many of the risk factors for heart disease — high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, for example — by making lifestyle changes along with the help of any needed medications. Lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent the condition include:
- Not smoking
- Controlling certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes
- Staying physically active
- Eating healthy foods
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing and managing stress
Heart failure is a chronic disease needing lifelong management. However, with treatment, signs and symptoms of heart failure can improve, and the heart sometimes becomes stronger. Treatment may help and reduce chance of dying suddenly. For example, repairing a heart valve or controlling a fast heart rhythm may reverse heart failure. But for most people, the treatment involves a balance of the right medications and, in some cases, use of devices that help the heart beat and contract properly.
Usually treatment can be a combination of medications. Depending on the symptoms, the patient might take one or more medications, including:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.These drugs help people with systolic heart failure live longer and feel better. ACE inhibitors are a type of vasodilator, a drug that widens blood vessels to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and decrease the workload on the heart. Examples include enalapril (Vasotec), lisinopril (Zestril) and captopril (Capoten).
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers. These drugs, which include losartan (Cozaar) and valsartan (Diovan), have many of the same benefits as ACE inhibitors. They may be an alternative for people who can’t tolerate ACE inhibitors.
- Beta blockers. This class of drugs not only slows heart rate and reduces blood pressure but also limits or reverses some of the damage to the heart if a systolic heart failure. Examples include carvedilol (Coreg), metoprolol (Lopressor) and bisoprolol (Zebeta). These medicines reduce the risk of some abnormal heart rhythms and lessen the chance of dying unexpectedly. Beta blockers may reduce signs and symptoms of heart failure, improve heart function.
- Digoxin (Lanoxin). This drug, also referred to as digitalis, increases the strength of your heart muscle contractions. It also tends to slow the heartbeat. Digoxin reduces heart failure symptoms in systolic heart failure. It may be more likely to be given to someone with a heart rhythm problem, such as atrial fibrillation.
- Inotropes. These are intravenous medications used in people with severe heart failure in the hospital to improve heart pumping function and maintain blood pressure.
Surgery and medical devices
In some cases, surgery is recommended to treat the underlying problem that led to heart failure. Some treatments being studied and used in certain people include:
- Coronary bypass surgery: If severely blocked arteries are contributing to the heart failure, coronary artery bypass surgery may be recommended. In this procedure, blood vessels from the leg, arm or chest bypass a blocked artery in the heart to allow blood to flow through the heart more freely.
- Heart valve repair or replacement: If a faulty heart valve causes the heart failure, repairing or replacing the valve may be recommended. The surgeon can modify the original valve to eliminate backward blood flow. Surgeons can also repair the valve by reconnecting valve leaflets or by removing excess valve tissue so that the leaflets can close tightly. Sometimes repairing the valve includes tightening or replacing the ring around the valve (annuloplasty). Valve replacement is done when valve repair isn’t possible. In valve replacement surgery, the damaged valve is replaced by an artificial (prosthetic) valve. Certain types of heart valve repair or replacement can now be done without open heart surgery, using either minimally invasive surgery or cardiac catheterization techniques.
- Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs): An ICD is a device similar to a pacemaker. It’s implanted under the skin in the chest with wires leading through the veins and into the heart. The ICD monitors the heart rhythm. If the heart starts beating at a dangerous rhythm, or if the heart stops, the ICD tries to pace the heart or shock it back into normal rhythm. An ICD can also function as a pacemaker and speed the heart up if it is going too slow.
- Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT), or biventricular pacing: A biventricular pacemaker sends timed electrical impulses to both of the heart’s lower chambers (the left and right ventricles) so that they pump in a more efficient, coordinated manner. Many people with heart failure have problems with their heart’s electrical system that cause their already-weak heart muscle to beat in an uncoordinated fashion. This inefficient muscle contraction may cause heart failure to worsen. Often a biventricular pacemaker is combined with an ICD for people with heart failure.
- Ventricular assist devices (VADs): A VAD, also known as a mechanical circulatory support device, is an implantable mechanical pump that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles) to the rest of the body. A VAD is implanted into the abdomen or chest and attached to a weakened heart to help it pump blood to the rest of the body. VADs may also be used as an alternative to transplantation. Implanted heart pumps can enhance the quality of life of some people with severe heart failure who aren’t eligible for or able to undergo heart transplantation or are waiting for a new heart.
- Heart transplant: Some people have such severe heart failure that surgery or medications don’t help. They may need to have their diseased heart replaced with a healthy donor heart. Heart transplants can improve the survival and quality of life of some people with severe heart failure. However, candidates for transplantation often have to wait a long time before a suitable donor heart is found. Some transplant candidates improve during this waiting period through drug treatment or device therapy and can be removed from the transplant waiting list. A heart transplant isn’t the right treatment for everyone. A team of doctors at a transplant center will evaluate you to determine whether the procedure may be safe and beneficial for you.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Making lifestyle changes can often help relieve signs and symptoms and prevent the disease from worsening. These changes may be among the most important and beneficial you can make. Lifestyle changes your doctor may recommend include:
- Stop smoking. Smoking damages your blood vessels, raises blood pressure, reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and makes your heart beat faster. If you smoke, ask your doctor to recommend a program to help you quit smoking. You can’t be considered for a heart transplant if you continue to smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke, too.
- Discuss weight monitoring with your doctor. Discuss with your doctor how often you should weigh yourself. Ask your doctor how much weight gain you should notify him or her about. Weight gain may mean that you’re retaining fluids and need a change in your treatment plan.
- Check your legs, ankles and feet for swelling daily. Check for any changes in swelling in your legs, ankles or feet daily. Check with your doctor if the swelling worsens.
- Eat a healthy diet. Aim to eat a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins.
- Restrict sodium in your diet. Too much sodium contributes to water retention, which makes your heart work harder and causes shortness of breath and swollen legs, ankles and feet. Check with your doctor for the sodium restriction recommended for you. Keep in mind that salt is already added to prepared foods, and be careful when using salt substitutes.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, your dietitian will help you work toward your ideal weight. Even losing a small amount of weight can help.
- Consider getting vaccinations. If you have heart failure, you may want to get influenza and pneumonia vaccinations. Ask your doctor about these vaccinations.
- Limit saturated or ‘trans’ fats in your diet. In addition to avoiding high-sodium foods, limit the amount of saturated fat and trans fat — also called trans-fatty acids — in your diet. These potentially harmful dietary fats increase your risk of heart disease.
- Limit alcohol and fluids. Your doctor may recommend that you don’t drink alcohol if you have heart failure, since it can interact with your medication, weaken your heart muscle and increase your risk of abnormal heart rhythms. If you have severe heart failure, your doctor may also suggest you limit the amount of fluids you drink.
- Be active. Moderate aerobic activity helps keep the rest of your body healthy and conditioned, reducing the demands on your heart muscle. Before you start exercising though, talk to your doctor about an exercise program that’s right for you. Your doctor may suggest a walking program. Check with your local hospital to see if it offers a cardiac rehabilitation program; if it does, talk to your doctor about enrolling in the program.
- Reduce stress. When you’re anxious or upset, your heart beats faster, you breathe more heavily and your blood pressure often goes up. This can make heart failure worse, since your heart is already having trouble meeting the body’s demands. Find ways to reduce stress in your life. To give your heart a rest, try napping or putting your feet up when possible. Spend time with friends and family to be social and help keep stress at bay.
- Sleep easy. If you’re having shortness of breath, especially at night, sleep with your head propped up using a pillow or a wedge. If you snore or have had other sleep problems, make sure you get tested for sleep apnea.