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Congestive Heart Failure Basics

Heart failure is an extremely common condition that affects close to 5 million people in America. Each year an additional 550,000 new cases of heart failure are diagnosed. For those over 65 years of age, it has long been most common cause of hospitalization.

While the name can be deceiving, heart failure does not literally mean that the heart has stopped, and it is not the same condition as a cardiac arrest (in which the heart does abruptly stop beating). However, heart failure is a serious condition. With this disease, the heart does not work as effectively as it should, which causes less oxygen-rich blood to be pumped to your tissues.

Think of a traffic jam. If there is an accident on the highway you typically get caught in the congestion leading up to the site of the crash. That is because due to the accident the vehicles behind the accident are hindered from moving forward because of the accident in front of them. Since the cars cannot move quickly, traffic quickly becomes congested. Likewise, in heart failure, since the heart is not pumping blood forward as quickly as it should, the blood vessels leading to the heart become relatively congested and offload some of this excess pressure by pushing fluid out into the tissues. This results in congestion of these tissues, namely the lungs, legs and ankles, and sometimes the abdominal cavity. If severe, the whole body can become swollen.

It is important to note that the blood is made up of far more than blood cells. A major component of blood is fluid (basically water) and it is this fluid, not the blood cells themselves, that is forced out into the tissues when the pressure inside of the blood vessels becomes high due to congestion. That is why heart failure is also referred to as congestive heart failure. Because the heart is failing to pump blood forward as it should, the body?s tissues can become congested with fluid.

While heart failure is a serious condition, you may still be able to lead a healthy and active lifestyle with the proper medication and a healthy lifestyle.

What causes heart failure?

The most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease (CAD), or clogged arteries. High blood pressure is another very common cause. Disease of the heart valves, infection of the heart muscle and heavy drinking can also lead to heart failure.


What are common signs and symptoms of heart failure?

Shortness of breath, especially progressive shortness of breath, with less and less physical activity may be a sign of heart failure. Waking up at night due to shortness of breath is also a common warning sign.
Heart racing
Fatigue/weakness
Frequent coughing
Swelling of your ankles, legs, or abdominal region
Decreased appetite
Weight gain


What can you do to manage your heart failure?

Take your medications as prescribed.
Eat a low-salt diet.
Exercise regularly. (Check with your physician before beginning any new exercise regimen.)
Limit or avoid alcohol.
Weigh yourself daily and notify your physician should you gain weight. Ask your doctor for guidelines regarding the amount of weight gain that would concern him or her.
Avoid stress.
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Content copyright © 2013 by A. Maria Hester, M.D.. All rights reserved.
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