What is heart failure?
Your heart is a pump, responsible for delivering blood around your body. As with all pumps sometimes they can become less effective when something goes wrong with one of the parts of the pump. When this happens to your heart it can lead to a condition called heart failure.
Heart failure may sound like a scary term but it just means that the pumping action of your heart is not working as well as it should and is unable to deliver blood as effectively to your body. The wall of your heart can become enlarged and/or stiff.
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
Heart failure symptoms and signs are mainly related to a build-up of excess fluid in the body and may include:
- Shortness of breath during activity, when lying down or while sleeping
- Persistent cough or wheezing
- Fatigue and weakness
- Build-up of excess fluid in your body, for example, swelling in the legs, ankles, feet or abdomen, or very rapid weight gain
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat, which may feel like your heart is racing or throbbing
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Nausea and lack of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
What causes heart failure?
There are 2 major types of heart failure. The first is heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), which is where the heart becomes enlarged and weak. This is usually due to some other condition such as coronary artery disease but may also be genetic. The second major type is heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF), where the heart is normal in size and squeezes well but becomes too stiff. This is commonly seen in people as they age and because people are living longer this is becoming an increasingly common problem.
How is heart failure diagnosed?
If your doctor thinks that you may have heart failure, they will talk to you about your family history and do a thorough physical examination (including taking your blood pressure and listening to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope.
Your doctor may also refer you for some further tests including:
This is a type of ultrasound that is used to see how thick your heart muscle is and how it pumpsLearn more
A test to check how your heart and the coronary arteries are functioning.Learn more
A small tube will be placed into a blood vessel in your upper thigh or arm and a special dye that is visible with by an X-ray will be injected. This will help to show if there are any blockages in your coronary arteries
Management and treatment options
Heart failure is a chronic condition; however, your cardiologist has a number of medications and other treatments available to assist in reducing your symptoms and in many cases improving your heart muscle function (especially if you have HFrEF).
Physical activity and cardiac rehabilitation
Exercise is important to live a healthy life. That still applies if you have heart failure! Exercise has been shown to improve your everyday functioning, quality of life and even help keep you out of hospital. Cardiac rehabilitation programs are a special type of program designed for people with heart conditions. It combines exercise with education classes that help you make healthy changes to your life. It will be personalised to you, so you know that you are only doing what you can manage.
There are a range of medications for heart failure that can help improve your symptoms and ultimately help keep you out of hospital and extend your life. Your doctor will talk to you about which medications are right for you and how and when you should take them.
In severe cases of heart failure a special sort of pacemaker which helps the heart muscle pump more efficiently may need to be used. Some of these pacemakers also have a defibrillator which is used to help reduce the risk of a dangerous heart rhythm causing problems.
Heart failure management programs
Programs run by a whole team of healthcare professionals to give you all the information you need to help you manage your condition. They are run in person and by telehealth and will help you learn how to manage your heart failure medicines, when to act if your symptoms get worse and how to monitor your fluid levels. Heart failure management programs may be recommended by your doctor as they have been shown to reduce the time you spend in hospital and help you live a longer life.
How can I prevent heart failure?
You can help prevent certain types of heart failure by controlling risk factors and living a healthy life. So, what does that mean?
- Stop smoking
- Keep your blood pressure under control
- Exercise regularly and eat healthy food
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Reduce your stress levels
Being diagnosed with heart failure can be frightening, but it’s important to remember that treatments can help manage the condition to improve your quality of life, keep you out of hospital and make sure you live your best possible life.
It’s incredibly important to contact your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms of heart failure. They will work together with a team of healthcare professionals (i.e., cardiologist, nurse, physical therapist, therapist) to help manage your heart.
This information is of a general nature. If you are concerned about your heart health, discuss this with your local doctor.