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What is heart failure?

You may hear the condition described as an "enlarged heart", a heart with a "little damage" or a "weak heart". Heart failure is often a misunderstood disease. Many people think of heart failure as a sudden event such as a heart attack. But in fact the two are not the same.

A heart attack usually results from blockage in the blood vessels that cut off the supply of blood to the heart. This means that the heart isn’t getting the blood and oxygen it needs, and that causes the sharp pains associated with a heart attack.

Unlike a heart attack, heart failure is not something that occurs suddenly, nor is it typically painful. Heart failure is a progressive weakening of the heart muscle. It is a chronic condition that develops slowly and gets worse over time.

Very simply, heart failure is a condition that occurs when your heart can not pump blood well enough to meet your body’s needs. This is generally because the heart muscle is too weak. Heart failure typically develops as a result of some sort of injury or damage to the heart muscle. The remaining healthy parts of the heart have to do the same amount of work as the whole heart to pump blood around the body. Those remaining healthy parts of the heart get more and more stretched out and weaker - almost like a stretched out balloon or rubber band.

You can live with heart failure. In fact, millions of people are living with heart failure right now. Together with your healthcare team, you can make your heart’s job easier and help yourself feel better too.

Heart failure is frighteningly common, but under-recognized. It affects nearly 5 million Americans. As more people are surviving heart attacks, but being left with weakened hearts, heart failure is the only major cardiovascular disorder on the rise. There are about a half a million new cases diagnosed each year.

However, the use of newer medications has been shown to decrease the risk of hospitalization and death due to heart failure. As awareness about heart failure grows, and more patients are diagnosed and treated early, we will likely see these numbers fall.

Risk factors:

  • Muscle damage and scarring caused by a heart attack is among the greatest risks for heart failure.
  • Cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) also increases heart failure risk.
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases the risk of heart failure by 200 percent.
  • The degree of heart failure risk appears directly related to the severity of the high blood pressure.
  • People with diabetes have a two to eight-fold greater risk of heart failure than those without.
  • Women with diabetes have a greater risk then men with diabetes.

A single risk factor is enough to cause heart failure, but multiple risk factors greatly increases the risk. Advanced age also adds to the potential impact of any heart failure risk. If you have any of these risk factors you should consult your physician.

Many people are not aware they have heart failure because the most common symptoms are often confused with normal signs of aging. An easy way to remember the symptoms is by using the acronym FACES:

  • F stands for fatigue or tiredness. This fatigue is generally brought on by exertion, but in advanced stages of heart failure can occur even at rest.
  • A stands for activity becomes limited or reduced. You may experience an inability to exercise, feel weak or have trouble completing daily tasks.
  • C stands for chest congestion or cough.
  • E stands for edema or swelling in your ankles.
  • S stand for shortness of breath. Some people even wake up suddenly from sleep feeling the need to catch their breath.

If you suffer from any of these symptoms, you should consult your physician about heart failure or make an appointment with one of our physicians that specializes in treating this disease. Search for a local doctor through "Find a Doctor" feature online.

One of most important diagnostic tools for heart failure is called an echocardiogram or ECHO for short. It is a painless and non-invasive procedure that allows your doctor to see inside your heart and can tell you how vigorously or not the heart is squeezing.

Another test your doctor may run is called an electrocardiogram or EKG. This is also a painless and non-invasive test. Electrical wires with suction cups are placed on your chest, arms and legs to measure how your heart is beating and if there has been any damage to your heart muscle.

Your doctor may also take a chest X-ray. The chest X-ray will show the size of your heart. People with heart failure sometimes have an enlarged heart muscle.

Managing Heart Failure
A critical part of heart failure therapy involves taking medication. Experts now recommend a multi-drug treatment regimen as part of the standard of care to treat heart failure. This combination of medications has been proven to help patients feel better, slow the progression of the disease, keep patients out of the hospital and even help them live longer.

Some medications are prescribed to control symptoms caused by the “congestion,” while others are used to slow down the progression of heart failure. Drug therapy can do a lot to make patients feel better and relieve the congestion. It is important to remember that even when the congestion goes away, the heart failure is still there. That’s why it is so important to treat not just the symptoms, but the underlying disease.

The good news is that today doctors can do more than ever before to manage heart failure. Remember living with heart failure begins with you - so make sure to check out any symptoms you or a family member might have.

The Heart Failure Society of America has a web site, which can provide you with more information about heart failure. If you have any questions and your physician is not available or if you would like to receive a free video or other information about heart failure just visit the web site.