A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Understanding heart failure: 4 things to know

Elderly woman riding a bicycle with a friend - Heart failure

Consistent but not overly strenuous exercise is an important part of treating heart failure.

The words “heart failure” sound frightening, but with proper treatment many people can live extended periods of time with the condition.

What is heart failure?

“Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition where the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for blood and oxygen,” said Diane Joyce, a nurse practitioner at Marshfield Clinic’s Heart Failure Improvement Clinic.

Joyce said there are two main kinds of heart failure. In one variety, the heart’s ability to pump blood is weaker than normal. The other kind of heart failure occurs when the heart’s strength is normal, but the heart muscle is stiff.

Causes and symptoms

Heart failure may be caused by a variety of factors, including coronary heart disease, heart valve problems, heart arrhythmia, viruses, stress and other factors like high blood pressure. Heart failure is diagnosed by combining the patient’s symptoms with an echocardiogram test.

Symptoms of heart failure may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual or excessive fatigue, weakness or faintness
  • A feeling that your pulse is fast or irregular
  • The sensation of feeling the heart beat
  • Waking in the night coughing, short of breath or gasping for air
  • Sudden or unexpected weight gain
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Swollen feet, ankles, fingers, legs or abdomen
  • The need to urinate frequently at night
  • Loss of appetite

Treating heart failure

“For about a third of patients, there are medications proven to help restore the heart back to normal strength,” Joyce said. “The average life expectancy with heart failure is five years from the time of diagnosis, but many of our patients live a lot longer than that.”

Joyce said the first step in treating heart failure is to address the underlying issue. In the case of coronary heart disease, this could mean placing stents in an artery or open-heart surgery. If heart failure is valve related, valve surgery is a possibility.

Following a specific diet that limits sodium and incorporating regular – but not overly strenuous – exercise is important.

“We encourage patients to start slow with exercise and increase as able,” Joyce said. “People with heart failure should be as active as their symptoms will allow.”

The emotional aspect of heart failure

Joyce said the emotional component of a disease like heart failure is important for both the patient and care team to understand and consider in treatment. People with heart failure may become depressed for a number of reasons, including that they may not be able to do things they once enjoyed, like especially vigorous exercise.

“Depression can affect your whole body and make your heart failure worse, so it’s something that needs to be closely managed and monitored,” Joyce said. “The nature of this disease is that there will be good days and tougher days.”

Joyce said her team works with a patient’s primary care provider to help coordinate care for conditions outside the scope of the Heart Failure Improvement Clinic, such as depression. If you have concerns about your heart health, talk with your primary care provider.

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