Congestive Heart Failure

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure is diagnosed when the heart is unable to pump blood to the rest of the body at a normal rate and the excess blood backs up into the lungs and other parts of the body. Congestive heart failure can occur as the result of several heart conditions, and must be treated.

Understanding the Heart

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure is a progressive condition ranging from mild to very severe. Symptoms tend to develop as the condition worsens, and include:

  • Sudden, unexplained weight gain
  • Swelling around the feet, ankles or legs
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing while lying down
  • Persistent cough

Causes of Congestive Heart Failure

Heart failure and congestive heart failure can be caused by a number of conditions, including:

  • Congenital birth defects – When heart failure occurs in children it is usually due to a birth defect involving the heart.
  • Valvular heart disease – Problems due to valvular heart disease can increase the workload of the heart and cause congestive heart failure.
  • High blood pressure – Increased workload of the heart over a prolonged period of time increases the risk of developing this condition.
  • Coronary artery disease – When the arteries narrow or become blocked, blood cannot be pumped through and goes back to the lungs.
  • Heart attack – Damage to the heart incurred during a heart attack increases the risk of developing heart failure.

Diagnosing Congestive Heart Failure

If you experience any of the symptoms of congestive heart failure, or if you have any of the conditions that can cause heart failure, speak with your physician. Your doctor will review your medical history and perform a complete physical exam. He/she may also prescribe the following tests:

  • Chest x-ray – Allows doctor to see if any liquid is collecting in the lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram – Measures the heart rate and regularity.

Treatment Options

Treatment following the diagnosis of heart failure is crucial. Left untreated, heart failure can be a very debilitating and life-threatening condition. Not only is overall health at risk, congestive heart failure significantly increases one’s risk of heart attack. Most patients’ treatment plans are a combination of lifestyle changes as well as medication. In some cases, surgery may be required.

Lifestyle Changes

The following steps can help reduce the symptoms associated with congestive heart failure, including:

  • Eat healthy – Enjoy a diet that is low in fat, sodium and cholesterol.
  • Exercise – Discuss with your physician the type and amount of exercise that is right for you.
  • Lose weight – If you are considered overweight or obese, talk with your doctor about the best weight loss plan for you.
  • Monitor blood pressure – Check your blood pressure on a regular basis, and follow your doctor’s advice for keeping it under control.
  • Quit smoking – Smoking increases the heart’s work load.
  • Avoid alcohol use
  • Rest – Get enough rest at night and periodically throughout the day.


There are three types of medication typically prescribed to congestive heart failure patients. Your doctor may prescribe just one, or a combination of medications:

  • Vasodilators – Dilates (or relaxes) the blood vessels, making it easier for the heart to pump blood.
  • Diuretics – Remove excess fluids from the body, easing the amount of liquid collecting in the lungs and elsewhere.
  • Digitalis – Strengthen the heartbeat.

Some of the conditions that can cause heart failure can often be remedied through surgery. Some of these procedures may include:

  • Valve repair or valve replacement – If the condition is caused by a valvular heart disease or deformity, valve repair or replacement may correct the situation.
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery – If the coronary arteries are blocked or severely narrowed, surgery to restore circulation may be required.
  • Heart transplant – In the most severe cases, when other treatment has failed, a heart transplant may be the best option for some patients.
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