A Comprehensive Guide to Treating Heart Failure
This year doctors will diagnose 670,000 Americans with heart failure. Also known as congestive heart failure, it is one of the biggest challenges we face in all of medicine. Heart failure is the single most common reason for hospitalizations in people over 60-65 years old, costing the nation an estimated $40 billion a year in related health costs.
Despite these statistics, the medical field is making progress – a diagnosis today offers more hope than it did just a few years ago. With a multi-pronged approach to treatment, you can manage your symptoms and be much more active and productive than heart failure patients of the recent past.
What is Heart Failure?
Many people assume heart failure is when the heart simply stops beating. In reality, heart failure occurs when your heart muscle fails to pump enough blood through the body, causing other organs to come under stress and fail to function properly too. Heart failure is a progressive, chronic disease, with early symptoms surfacing as shortness of breath, leg swelling, fatigue, and difficulty doing normal activities like walking up the stairs. Rapid weight gain can also be an early sign your body is retaining too much fluid as a result of organs receiving less blood. As an example, kidneys may not receive enough blood flow and they may not be able to get rid of the excess water taken in. This leads to fluid build-up in the body.
There are a number of conditions that cause heart failure. The usual suspects are coronary artery disease (when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become narrowed), untreated high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), and viral infection of the heart. Although rare, genetics or unknown causes can also play a role in the development of heart failure.
The First Line of Intervention: Medication
The first line of medical intervention is medication. There are several classes of drugs that can successfully treat heart failure symptoms. Physicians usually prescribe a combination of these drugs to address a patient’s particular condition and symptoms. For example, I might prescribe diuretics, pills that help the body get rid of excess fluid, to a patient suffering from leg swelling. In addition, I would use other drugs to further decrease the heart’s workload for the same patient.
The use of these medications has to be carefully monitored and adjusted based on the patient’s age, kidney function, symptoms of heart failure, and stage of heart failure. As a doctor, I try to focus on treating the condition’s underlying causes in a patient, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. The goal with a drug therapy regimen is to treat both the symptoms and the cause, thus stemming heart failure’s progression and decreasing the symptoms. In this way, treating heart failure needs a holistic approach, and I recommend patients take time to understand how their treatment regimen is supposed to work.
Lifestyle Changes Are Crucial
Medication can reduce your symptoms, but making lifestyle changes can slow the disease’s development and help you live a full life with heart failure. Quitting smoking, controlling salt and water intake, decreasing cholesterol and saturated fats from your diet are some of the most obvious ways to give your condition a chance to improve. I also encourage patients to maintain a healthy weight and exercise routine. Moderate exercise under medical supervision can significantly improve or at least maintain your condition. For many patients, participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program, or a medically supervised program designed to coach and educate you on proper exercise and diet, can be the best and safest way to start making these changes become a routine.
THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.
Nirav Y. Raval, MD,
FACC, is the Thoracic Medical Director and Transplant Cardiologist at the
Transplant Institute in Orlando, Florida. View his Healthgrades profile >
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