What is congestive heart failure? It doesn’t mean the heart is no longer working, as the name implies, but rather that there is a buildup of fluid (congestion) that causes the heart to not be able to work as efficiently as it should.
That is to say, it is unable to pump blood to the body at optimal levels, and as a result pressure builds up inside the heart. It is a condition that gets progressively worse, which is why early detection and treatment is crucial.
Let’s take a look at the symptoms first and they we will look into what could be causing the problem and how you can treat it.
What are the Congestive Heart Failure Symptoms?
Unfortunately, you could have heart failure without the tell tale symptoms, but there are many common symptoms to be aware of. One of the most common is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, either during exercise or while at rest. This is the case if the congestion is in your lungs. You may also experience a wheeze or a dry cough, which is also a sign of fluid buildup in the lungs.
If you are not getting an adequate supply of blood to your kidneys, your body might start retaining water, and you may experience swelling of the ankles, legs and stomach area. This can cause weight gain, nausea or increased urination at night time.
General symptoms of a decreased blood supply can include an overall feeling of weakness, dizziness, malaise or tiredness. You may have difficulty thinking straight and be confused if blood supply to the brain is inadequate. And of course, since your heart is working that much harder to pump blood, your heartbeat may increase or be irregular.
So as you can see, specific congestive heart failure symptoms will depend on which areas of the body are being affected. You may experience all of them, you may just experience one or none at all. The main takeaway here is if you experience any of them, seek medical attention as soon as possible. However, it does not mean that you have congestive heart failure per se. It could be any number of things.
What Causes Congestive Heart Failure To Occur?
There are many different potential causes of heart failure, including coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy (heart damage from infections, drugs, alcohol), heart attack, high blood pressure, congenital defects and various diseases such as diabetes or thyroid problems.
Anything that causes damage to the arteries or heart muscle can potentially lead to congestive heart failure, as they directly affect the ability of the heart to perform optimally.
It’s important to note that there are congestive heart failure stages, i.e. it doesn’t come at you all at once, rather it develops over time. Although there are many classifications out there, the most widely used are those of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. They developed a four stage system, A-D.
Stage A – This includes those who are at a high risk of heart failure. You may have a family history, artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. Anything that puts you at risk (see causes above) puts you in this category.
Stage B – This is people with systolic left ventricular dysfunction, which includes those that have previously had a heart attack, have heart muscle breakdown or valve disease. These individuals do not yet have symptoms of congestive heart failure.
Stage C – This stage of congestive heart failure includes individuals with known systolic heart failure that had or currently have the main symptoms – shortness of breath, tiredness, inability to exercise at previous level.
Stage D – This includes individuals with advanced symptoms of congestive heart failure after receiving full medical care.
Is There a Congestive Heart Failure Treatment?
As far as treatment options are concerned, it will depend on your symptoms and what stage of the condition you are at. Obviously, the further along it is the harder it is to treat. For those in Stage A, the high risk group, treatment is more preventative and includes exercising, quitting drugs and alcohol if that’s an issue, and taking medications for whatever conditions or diseases you have that put you at a higher risk.
For those in Stage B, all of the congestive heart failure treatment protocols of Stage A apply, plus your doctor may recommend ACE inhibitors or ARBs, beta blockers post heart attack and necessary surgeries to repair arteries and valves.
For those in Stage C, again all of the recommendations above apply, plus additional treatments such as water pills, aldosterone therapy, fluid and salt restriction, pacemakers and implanted defibrillators may be advised.
Lastly, in Stage D, all of the treatments for A, B and C apply, plus your doctor will determine if a heart transplant, ventricular assist devices, surgery or other therapies are a viable option.
When people talk about congestive heart failure life expectancy, they are usually referring to those in Stage D, where most traditional therapies have been unsuccessful and the condition has become more advanced. Although it is improving with new and more effective treatments, it’s still not a great outlook at the later stages. Exactly what the life expectancy is is definitely debatable, because the latest available studies are over ten years old and use data from years before that.
Suffice it to say, the most advanced stage of heart failure is very difficult to treat, but the outlook is definitely better than it was years ago, as new treatments are allowing people to live longer than they previously did. Also, doctors are able to slow the progression of the disease much more effectively than they used to, which is good news for those in all stages.
What’s the Bottom Line?
If you notice any of the symptoms above, or anything else out of the ordinary, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis as quickly as possible. You may have congestive heart failure, something else or nothing at all. But you definitely need to check it out.
Whether or not you fit into any of the stages or not, it’s important to do whatever you can to lower your risk of heart disease. Start watching your diet and adding heart-healthy food, incorporate regular exercise, lead a healthy lifestyle free of smoking, drinking and stress, and add heart healthy nutrients/supplements that you may be lacking.
Manage your weight and any health conditions that you have, monitor your symptoms, and get regular checkups to keep on top of everything.
If you do get diagnosed with congestive heart disease, don’t panic and think it’s the end of the world. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options and figure out the best course of action.