Heart Failure: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention And Home Remedies

Heart Failure: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention And Home Remedies

What is heart failure?

Heart failure 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 symptoms appear years after their heart began its decline.

Heart Failure Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention And Home Remedies
Heart Failure

How serious the condition is depends on how much pumping capacity the heart has lost. Nearly everyone loses some pumping capacity as he or she ages. But the loss is significantly more in heart failure and often results from a heart attack or other disease that damages the heart.

The severity of the condition determines the impact it has on a person's life. At one end of the spectrum, the mild form of heart failure may have little effect on a person's life; at the other end, severe heart failure can interfere with even simple activities and prove fatal. Between those extremes, treatment often helps people lead full lives.

But all forms of heart failure, even the mildest, are a serious health problem, which must be treated. To improve their chance of living longer, patients must take care of themselves, see their physician regularly, and closely follow treatments.

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Is there only one type of heart failure?

The term congestive heart failure is often used to describe all patients with heart failure. In reality, congestion (the buildup of fluid) is just one feature of the condition and does not occur in all patients. There are two main categories of heart failure although within each category, symptoms and effects may differ from patient to patient. The two categories are:
  • 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. Blood coming into the heart from the lungs may back up and cause fluid to leak into the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary congestion.

  • 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. This form may lead to fluid accumulation, especially in the feet, ankles, and legs. Some patients may have lung congestion.

How common is heart failure?

Between 2 to 3 million Americans have heart failure, and 400,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The condition is slightly more common among men than women and is twice as common among African Americans as whites.

Heart failure causes 39,000 deaths a year and is a contributing factor in another 225,000 deaths. The death rate attributed to heart failure rose by 64 percent from 1970 to 1990, while the death rate from coronary heart disease dropped by 49 percent during the same period. Heart failure mortality is about twice as high for African Americans as whites for all age groups.

In a sense, heart failure's growing presence as a health problem reflects the Nation's changing population: More people are living longer. People age 65 and older represent the fastest growing segment of the population, and the risk of heart failure increases with age. The condition affects 1 percent of people age 50, but about 5 percent of people age 75.

What causes heart failure?

As stated, the heart loses some of its blood-pumping ability as a natural consequence of aging. However, a number of other factors can lead to a potentially life-threatening loss of pumping activity.

As a symptom of underlying heart disease, heart failure is closely associated with the major risk factors for coronary heart disease: smoking, high cholesterol levels, hypertension (persistent high blood pressure), diabetes and abnormal blood sugar levels, and obesity. A person can change or eliminate those risk factors and thus lower their risk of developing or aggravating their heart disease and heart failure.

Among prominent risk factors, hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes are particularly important. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases the risk of heart failure by 200 percent, compared with those who do not have hypertension. Moreover, the degree of risk appears directly related to the severity of the high blood pressure.

Persons with diabetes have about a two- to eightfold greater risk of heart failure than those without diabetes. Women with diabetes have a greater risk of heart failure than men with diabetes. Part of the risk comes from diabetes' association with other heart failure risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol levels. However, the disease process in diabetes also damages the heart muscle.

The presence of coronary disease is among the greatest risks for heart failure. Muscle damage and scarring caused by a heart attack greatly increase the risk of heart failure. Cardiac arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, also raise heart failure risk. Any disorder that causes abnormal swelling or thickening of the heart sets the stage for heart failure.

In some people, heart failure arises from problems with heart valves, the flap-like structures that help regulate blood flow through the heart. Infections in the heart are another source of increased risk for heart failure.

A single risk factor may be sufficient to cause heart failure, but a combination of factors dramatically increases the risk. Advanced age adds to the potential impact of any heart failure risk.

Finally, genetic abnormalities contribute to the risk for certain types of heart disease, which in turn may lead to heart failure. However, in most instances, a specific genetic link to heart failure has not been identified.

What are the symptoms of Heart Failure?

A number of symptoms are associated with heart failure, but none is specific for the condition. 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.

Fatigue or easy tiring is another common symptom. As the heart's pumping capacity decreases, muscles and other tissues receive less oxygen and nutrition, which are carried in the blood. Without proper "fuel," the body cannot perform as much work, which translates into fatigue.

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.

Persistent coughing is another common sign, especially coughing that regularly produces mucus or pink, blood-tinged sputum. Some people develop raspy breathing or wheezing.

Because heart failure usually develops slowly, the symptoms may not appear until the condition has progressed over years. The heart hides the underlying problem by making adjustments that delay--but do not prevent--the eventual loss in pumping capacity. The heart adjusts, or compensates, in three ways to cope with and hide the effects of heart failure:

  • Enlargement ("dilatation"), which allows more blood into the heart;
  • Thickening of muscle fibers ("hypertrophy") to strengthen the heart muscle, which allows the heart to contract more forcefully and pump more blood; and
  • More frequent contraction, which increases circulation.
By making these adjustments, or compensating, the heart can temporarily make up for losses in pumping ability, sometimes for years. However, compensation has its limits. Eventually, the heart cannot offset the lost ability to pump blood, and the signs of heart failure appear.

How do doctors diagnose heart failure?

In many cases, physicians diagnose heart failure during a physical examination. Readily identifiable signs are shortness of breath, fatigue, and swollen ankles and feet. The physician also will check for the presence of risk factors, such as hypertension, obesity, and a history of heart problems. Using a stethoscope, the physician can listen to a patient breathe and identify the sounds of lung congestion. The stethoscope also picks up the abnormal heart sounds indicative of heart failure.

Heart Failure Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention And Home Remedies
Heart Failure

If neither the symptoms nor the patient's history point to a clear-cut diagnosis, the physician may recommend any of a variety of laboratory tests, including, initially, an electrocardiogram, which uses recording devices placed on the chest to evaluate the electrical activity of a patient's heartbeat.

Echocardiography is another means of evaluating heart function from outside the body. Sound waves bounced off the heart are recorded and translated into images. The pictures can reveal abnormal heart size, shape, and movement. Echocardiography also can be used to calculate a patient's ejection fraction, a measure of the amount of blood pumped out when the heart contracts.

Another possible test is the chest x ray, which also determines the heart's size and shape, as well as the presence of congestion in the lungs.

Tests help rule out other possible causes of symptoms. The symptoms of heart failure can result when the heart is made to work too hard, instead of from damaged muscle. Conditions that overload the heart occur rarely and include severe anemia and thyrotoxicosis (a disease resulting from an overactive thyroid gland).

What treatments of Heart Failure are available?

Heart failure caused by an excessive workload is curable by treating the primary disease, such as anemia or thyrotoxicosis. Also curable are forms caused by anatomical problems, such as a heart valve defect. These defects can be surgically corrected.

However, for the common forms of heart failure--those due to damaged heart muscle--no known cure exists. But treatment for these forms may be quite successful. The treatment seeks to improve patients' quality of life and length of survival through lifestyle change and drug therapy.

Patients can minimize the effects of heart failure by controlling the risk factors for heart disease. Obvious steps include quitting smoking, losing weight if necessary, abstaining from alcohol, and making dietary changes to reduce the amount of salt and fat consumed. Regular, modest exercise is also helpful for many patients, though the amount and intensity should be carefully monitored by a physician.

But, even with lifestyle changes, most heart failure patients must take medication. Many patients receive two or more drugs.

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.

Sometimes, heart failure is life-threatening. Usually, this happens when drug therapy and lifestyle changes fail to control its symptoms. In such cases, a heart transplant may be the only treatment option. However, candidates for transplantation often have to wait months or even years before a suitable donor heart is found. Recent studies indicate that some transplant candidates improve during this waiting period through drug treatment and other therapy, and can be removed from the transplant list.

Transplant candidates who do not improve sometimes need mechanical pumps, which are attached to the heart. Called left ventricular assist devices ( LVADs), the machines take over part or virtually all of the heart's blood-pumping activity. However, current LVADs are not permanent solutions for heart failure but are considered bridges to transplantation.

An experimental surgical procedure for severe heart failure is available at a few U.S. medical centers. The procedure, called cardiomyoplasty, involves detaching one end of a muscle in the back, wrapping it around the heart, and then suturing the muscle to the heart. An implanted electric stimulator causes the back muscle to contract, pumping blood from the heart.

Common Heart Failure Medications

Listed below are some of the medications prescribed for heart failure. Not all medications are suitable for all patients, and more than one drug may be needed.

Also, the list provides the full range of possible side effects for these drugs. Not all patients will develop these side effects. If you suspect that you are having a side effect, alert your physician.

ACE Inhibitors

These prevent the production of a chemical that causes blood vessels to narrow. As a result, blood pressure drops and the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood.

Side effects may include coughing, skin rashes, fluid retention, excess potassium in the bloodstream, kidney problems, and an altered or lost sense of taste.


Increases the force of the heart's contractions. It also slows certain fast heart rhythms. As a result, the heart beats less frequently but more effectively, and more blood is pumped into the arteries.

Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, confusion, and new heartbeat irregularities.


These decrease the body's retention of salt and so of water. Diuretics are commonly prescribed to reduce high blood pressure. Diuretics come in many types, with different periods of effectiveness.

Side effects may include loss of too much potassium, weakness, muscle cramps, joint pains, and impotence.


This drug widens blood vessels, easing blood flow.

Side effects may include headaches, rapid heartbeat, and joint pain.


These drugs are used mostly for chest pain, but may also help diminish heart failure symptoms. They relax smooth muscle and widen blood vessels. They act to lower primarily systolic blood pressure.
Side effects may include headaches.

More infomation: Complications of Heart Failure

Lifestyle and home remedies for heart failure

Stop smoking

Smoking damages your blood vessels, raises blood pressure, reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and makes your heart beat faster. If you smoke, ask your doctor to recommend a program to help you quit. You can't be considered for a heart transplant if you continue to smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke too.

Limit fats and cholesterol

In addition to avoiding high-sodium foods, limit the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in your diet. A diet high in fat and cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary artery disease, which often underlies or contributes to heart failure.

Limit alcohol and fluids

Your doctor likely will recommend that you don't drink alcohol if you have heart failure, since it can interact with your medication, weaken your heart muscle and increase your risk of abnormal heart rhythms. If you have severe heart failure, your doctor may also suggest you limit the amount of fluids you drink.

Restrict salt in your diet

Too much sodium contributes to water retention, which makes your heart work harder and causes shortness of breath and swollen legs, ankles and feet. For people with heart failure, the daily recommended amount of dietary sodium is generally less than 2,000 milligrams — check with your doctor for the restriction recommended for you. Keep in mind that most of this salt is already added to prepared foods, and be careful when using salt substitutes.

Weigh yourself daily

Do this each morning after you've urinated, but before you've had breakfast. Notify your doctor if you have a weight gain of 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) or more in a week. It may mean that you're retaining fluids and need a change in your treatment plan. Record your weight every morning and bring the record with you to your doctor's visits.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you're overweight, your dietitian will help you work toward your ideal weight. Even losing a small amount of weight can help.
Heart Failure: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention And Home Remedies

Be active

Moderate aerobic activity helps keep the rest of your body healthy and conditioned, reducing the demands on your heart muscle. Before you start exercising though, talk to your doctor about an exercise program that's right for you. Your doctor may suggest a walking program. Check with your local hospital to see if it offers a cardiac rehabilitation program; if it does, talk to your doctor about enrolling in the program.

Reduce stress

When you're anxious or upset, your heart beats faster, you breathe more heavily and your blood pressure often goes up. This can make heart failure worse, since your heart is already having trouble meeting the body's demands. Find ways to reduce stress in your life. To give your heart a rest, try napping or putting your feet up when possible.

Sleep easy

If you're having shortness of breath, especially at night, sleep with your head propped up at a 45-degree angle using a pillow or a wedge. If you snore or have had other sleep problems, make sure you get tested for sleep apnea.

To improve your sleep at night, prop up your head with pillows and avoid big meals right before bedtime. Also, discuss with your doctor changing the time for taking medications, especially diuretics. Taking diuretics earlier in the day may decrease the need to urinate as often during the night.

Preventing heart failure 

Many of the factors that increase your risk of developing heart failure can be managed either by making lifestyle changes or by taking medicines.

In particular, high blood pressure (hypertension) and smoking are risks for heart health, and tackling them could help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Stop smoking

Giving up smoking (if you smoke) is likely to be the single biggest way to cut your risk of developing coronary heart disease and heart failure. Tobacco smoke can damage your heart in a number of ways, forcing it to work harder.

Smoking also tends to make the blood thicker and slows down blood flow, increasing the risk of blood clots (thrombosis). It damages the linings of the arteries, causing them to fur up. This furring up of the arteries (atherosclerosis) is a main cause of coronary heart disease, stroke and some forms of dementia.

Research has shown that you are up to four times more likely to give up smoking successfully if you use NHS support, together with stop-smoking medicines. Ask your GP about this or visit the NHS Smokefree website for more information.

Reduce your blood pressure

If your blood pressure is too high, your heart has to work harder to pump blood around your body. To cope with the extra effort, the heart muscle thickens over time, and will eventually become too stiff or weak to work properly.

Keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level can stop or delay this happening so it may be useful to have your blood pressure checked regularly.

It may be necessary to take blood pressure medicines (usually more than one) to get your blood pressure down to a healthy level. It is important you and your doctor choose the medicine or combination of medicines that will suit you.

Reduce your cholesterol level

High levels of cholesterol (fat) in your blood can cause furring and narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attacks and strokes.

The risk of coronary heart disease – and therefore heart failure – increases as the level of cholesterol in your blood increases. If you have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or you smoke, the risk is even higher.

If your cholesterol level is too high, your doctor will usually first advise you to make some changes to your diet (switching to a low-fat diet) and to take plenty of regular exercise.

If, after a few months, your cholesterol level has not decreased, you will usually need to take cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins.

Lose weight

If you are overweight, added pressure will be placed on your heart, increasing your risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack. Both of these make heart failure more likely.

Following the advice below will help you lose weight, as well as lowering your risk of developing heart failure.

Eat a healthy diet

A healthy diet can help reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease and therefore heart failure.
If you already have heart problems, eating healthily can help protect your heart from getting worse, as well as protecting you from other diseases, such as diabetes and some types of cancer.

Keep active

Regular physical activity can keep your heart healthy and help you maintain a healthy weight.

You do not need to join a gym or start running marathons, but including exercise in your daily routine will help. If you do not have a good level of mobility, you may be able to do arm or wheechair-based exercises.

Drink within safe limits

Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can increase your blood pressure, which can lead to heart failure.

Heavy drinking over a number of years can damage your heart muscle and lead directly to heart failure, as well as having many other harmful effects on your health.

Men who regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day, and women who regularly drink more than two to three units a day are likely to be damaging their health.

Cut your salt intake

Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, so reducing the amount you eat will help keep your blood pressure down and reduce your risk of developing heart failure.

People of African-Caribbean descent appear to be more at risk of the harmful effects of salt compared with people from other ethnic groups.

However, it is rarely helpful or necessary to have a diet that is very low in salt. Avoiding adding salt to food at the table or during cooking and not eating too much obvious salty foods, such as curry, salted snacks and pizza, is a good start.

Can a person live with heart failure?

Heart failure is one of the most serious symptoms of heart disease. About two-thirds of all patients die within 5 years of diagnosis. However, some live beyond 5 years, even into old age. The outlook for an individual patient depends on the patient's age, severity of heart failure, overall health, and a number of other factors.

As heart failure progresses, the effects can become quite severe, and patients often lose the ability to perform even modest physical activity. Eventually, the heart's reduced pumping capacity may interfere with routine functions, and patients may become unable to care for themselves. The loss in functional ability can occur quickly if the heart is further weakened by heart attacks or the worsening of other conditions that affect heart failure, such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Heart failure patients also have an increased risk of sudden death, or cardiac arrest, caused by an irregular heartbeat.

To improve the chances of surviving with heart failure, patients must take care of themselves.

Patients must:

  • See their physician regularly;
  • Closely follow all of their physician's instructions;
  • Take any medication according to instructions; and
  • Immediately inform their physician of any significant change in their condition, such as an intensified shortness of breath or swollen feet.

Patients with heart failure also should:

  • Control their weight;
  • Watch what they eat;
  • Not smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products; and
  • Abstain from or strictly limit alcohol consumption.
Even with the best care, heart failure can worsen, but patients who don't take care of themselves are almost writing themselves a prescription for poor health.
The best defense against heart failure is the prevention of heart disease. Almost all of the major coronary risk factors can be controlled or eliminated: smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

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