What is Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart loses its ability to pump enough blood through the body. Usually, the loss in pumping action is a symptom of an underlying heart problem, such as coronary artery disease.
The term heart failure suggests a sudden and complete stop of heart activity. But, actually, the heart does not suddenly stop. Rather, heart failure usually develops slowly, often over years, as the heart gradually loses its pumping ability and works less efficiently.
Some people may not become aware of their condition until years after their heart began its decline.
What are the Symptoms?
Perhaps the best known symptom is shortness of breath ("dyspnea"). In heart failure, this may result from excess fluid in the lungs. The breathing difficulties may occur at rest or during exercise. In some cases, congestion may be severe enough to prevent or interrupt sleep.
Being tired is another common symptom. As the heart's pumping capacity decreases, muscles and other tissues receive less oxygen and nutrition. Without proper "fuel," the body cannot perform as much work, and is tired.
Fluid accumulation, or edema, may cause swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, and occasionally, the abdomen. Excess fluid retained by the body may result in weight gain, which sometimes occurs fairly quickly.
Types of CHF:
Diastolic heart failure--This occurs when the heart has a problem relaxing. The heart cannot properly fill with blood because the muscle has become stiff, losing its ability to relax.
Systolic heart failure--This occurs when the heart's ability to contract decreases. The heart cannot pump with enough force to push a sufficient amount of blood into the circulation.
Is there a Cure?
There's no cure, but treatment can be quite successful. Patients can minimize the effects of heart failure through lifestyle changes and drug therapy.
Already having been diagnosed with CHF is no reason to not quit smoking.
There is simply no safe way to smoke. Although low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes may reduce the lung cancer risk somewhat, they do not lessen the risks of heart diseases or other smoking related diseases. The only safe and healthful course is not to smoke at all. There is nothing easy about giving up cigarettes.
If you can't quit the first time, keep trying. Most smokers "slip" three to five times before they quit for good. But as hard as quitting may be, the results are well worth it. In the first year after stopping smoking, the risk of coronary heart problems drops sharply. It then gradually returns to "normal"--that is, the same risk as someone who never smoked. You have been diagnosed with CHF, and quitting smoking won't cure it, but no matter what your age or health, quitting will lessen your chances of additional health problems.
If you're living with someone who smokes, realize that the reported dangers of second-hand smoke are real. Their smoking can kill you. As a CHF survivor, this risk needs to be taken seriously.
Eat Healthy Foods:
Proper eating really can make a difference. Among the lifestyle steps that help you live better with CHF are: losing excess weight, choosing foods low in salt and sodium, monitoring cholesterol, and avoiding alcohol.
The more overweight you are, the harder your heart has to work. Since your body is retaining excess fluid, some weight is a symptom of the disease, but you probably know if you're still overweight. Shift to healthy foods to slowly drop excess pounds, and make life easier for your heart.
Salt and sodium, the main ingredient in salt, must be watched carefully. Sodium causes your body to retain fluids, making the symptoms of CHF worse. Be particularly aware of the salt in canned foods and fast food - two groups whose convenience is often tempting to those worn down by CHF.
Give up alcohol. Your heart is weak, and drinking simply isn't worth the extra stress it puts on your system.
Reduce your cholesterol and fat intake. Work to eat healthy foods, prepared in healthy manners. Learn to love salads, and say good-bye to french fries.
Although your heart is damaged, and you may seem tired all too often, the best cure isn't to sit around, avoiding activity. Rather, work with your doctor and cardio-pulmonary rehab team to create a program that will allow you to stay active.
As a CHF patient, you may find that sometimes even the simplest tasks are exhausting. The concept of an activity schedule may seem laughable. But smart CHFers learn how to ration their strength, so that they can continue to enjoy the pleasures of life.
Follow your doctor's advice, start slow, and look for opportunities to become more physically active throughout your day:
Use the stairs--up and down--instead of the elevator. Practice with a few steps and gradually build up to more.
Park away from the office or store and walk the rest of the way. Or if you ride on public transportation, get off a stop or two early and walk a few blocks.
Consider joining an organized cardio-pulmonary rehab program.
Together, you, your doctor and your rehab team can create a program to speed up your recovery.
Take Your Medications:
Several types of drugs have proven useful in the treatment of heart failure:
Diuretics help reduce the amount of fluid in the body and are useful for patients with fluid retention and hypertension.
Digitalis increases the force of the heart's contractions, helping to improve circulation.
Results of recent studies have placed more emphasis on the use of drugs known as angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. Several large studies have
indicated that ACE inhibitors improve survival among heart failure patients and may slow, or perhaps even prevent, the loss of heart pumping activity.
Originally developed as a treatment for hypertension, ACE inhibitors help heart failure patients by, among other things, decreasing the pressure inside blood vessels. As a result, the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood through the vessels.
Patients who cannot take ACE inhibitors may get a nitrate and/or a drug called hydralazine, each of which helps relax tension in blood vessels to improve blood flow.
Ask your doctor about your medications, what each does, and whether there are any side effects. Knowing more will help you stick to the schedule that has been prescribed for you.