What is Congestive Heart Failure?

It’s a terrifying moment for many patients: the moment when the doctor enters their hospital room and informs them they are suffering from congestive heart failure. But unfortunately, many people do not know what congestive heart failure is or what it means for their lives. So they ask themselves, “Is congestive heart failure the end of my world as I know it?”

Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump the blood through the body effectively. This usually happens when the heart muscle is weak due to disease or stress beyond its ability to function. Congestive heart failure is usually a secondary disease following another cardiac condition, primarily coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, myocarditis, valvular disease, or cardiac arrhythmias, with coronary artery disease carrying the poorest prognosis. It may also follow a myocardial infarction, renal failure, sepsis, or severe anemia.

Therefore, each side of the heart has a different function and will have a slightly different effect on the body when it cannot fulfill that function. Suppose it is the left side of the heart that has failed. In that case, the accumulation of fluid in and around the lungs will cause the patient to experience difficulty breathing. The kidneys will also respond to the reduced blood in the circulation by retaining fluid. If the right side fails, the excess fluid accumulates in the venous system, giving the generalized patient edema that worsens as their condition deteriorates.

Dyspnea is the prevalent symptom of congestive heart failure, although the severity will vary from patient to patient. Some will possess perfectly normal pulmonary function until under exertion, such as while exercising, walking upstairs, or mowing their lawn; others will accumulate so much fluid that simply rising from bed in the morning will prove difficult. These patients will also usually become easily fatigued due to a lack of oxygen to the tissues. Heart failure will also cause a condition known as pitting edema. The body retains fluid to the point that when pressure is applied to a specific spot on the body, the indentation remains (non-pitting edema is not caused by heart failure).

Treatment of congestive heart failure consists primarily of treating the symptoms. Vital signs should be taken regularly. Diuretics will often be prescribed to facilitate the expulsion of accumulated fluid from the body. While in the hospital, fluid intake and output will be measured very carefully. Patients will probably be placed in an upright position to assist in moving fluid from around the heart and lungs, given potassium supplements, and prescribed bed rest. BUN levels and serum creatinine, potassium, sodium, chloride, and bicarbonate levels are monitored frequently by a physician.

Several factors contribute to congestive heart failure and, if diagnosed, should be treated and maintained. These include hypertension, anemia or polycythemia, endocrine disorders, malnutrition, drug or alcohol use, and obesity. Therefore, patients suffering from congestive heart failure must pay particular attention to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A doctor can aid in establishing the best diet and exercise plan with each individual to prevent placing undue stress on the heart and lungs.

While no said cure exists for congestive heart failure and the prognosis varies from case to case, by following a strict diet and exercise program, taking all prescribed medications regularly, and maintaining a close relationship with their physicians, many patients who suffer from heart failure can continue to lead a reasonably everyday life.

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