What is it?
The heart is the pump which distributes blood around all parts of the body. It usually generates enough force (measured as the blood pressure) to ensure that blood circulation is adequate. When the heart is no longer unable to pump well enough to serve its purpose, it is said to have failed.
Heart failure is usually the result of damage to the heart muscles by some other medical condition such as a heart attack. Different parts of the heart can be damaged, thus giving rise to different kinds of heart failure.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of heart failure are largely dependent on which side of the heart is affected. The heart is divided into left and right halves. The left side is responsible for receiving blood from the lungs and distributing it to the other parts of the body. Therefore if it fails, the following symptoms may occur:
- Breathlessness on exertion. It’s normal to gasp for breath after exercise, but if you have heart failure, you may get out of breath doing everyday things.
- Difficulty breathing while lying down.
- Having to wake up at intervals gasping for breath.
- Coughing with production of pink, frothy sputum
- Coughing up blood
- Easy fatiguability even when performing normal daily activities.
- Reduced urine production
- Feeling of impending fainting attack
- Memory loss
The first five symptoms are due to congestion in the lungs as the left heart is not able to empty completely and receive blood from the lungs. The others occur because the heart can’t pump enough blood to the muscles, kidneys and the brain.
The right side of the heart receives blood from other parts of the body and sends it to the lungs. Thus, when it fails, the following symptoms may occur:
- Leg swelling which is worse when standing.
- Abdominal swelling
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Easy satiety during feeding
- Fullness around the sides of the jaws.
What treatments work?
There are several ways of managing heart failure. They include:
- Drug treatment: The common drugs include:
• ACE inhibitors; which widen the blood vessels, taking some of the strain off the heart.
• Beta-blockers; which slow down the heart so it doesn’t need as much oxygen.
• Diuretics; which help get rid of extra body water so the heart has less load to pump.
- Quitting smoking: This makes for a better health overall and help prevent cough and chest infections which can worsen symptoms of heart failure.
- Reducing salt intake: Salt encourages your body to hold on to water. Eating low-salt diets can help avoid this. A maximum of two or three grams of salt (about half a teaspoon) is recommended.
- Reducing alcohol intake: Taking alcohol within recommended limits may be acceptable during heart failure. But it may just be better to stop entirely.
- Weight loss: Losing weight if you need to can reduce the strain on your heart.
- Exercise: Exercise can help people with heart failure feel better, be less breathless, and live longer. Talk to your doctor about the most suitable kind of exercise for you.
- Others: Surgery can also be used to treat heart failure. If the blood vessels in your heart are blocked or damaged, surgery may help to repair them.
If your heart doesn’t beat at the right speed, or the different parts of your heart don’t beat together, a pacemaker may help.
You might also have a device inserted in your chest that can shock your heart into starting again if it stops beating. This is called a defibrillator.
What will happen to me?
Heart failure is a serious condition. But it doesn’t mean you heart will stop beating entirely. It is a quite complicated illness, and it affects people differently. But lots of people with heart failure are treated successfully and live for many years.
You’re likely to do better if you try to keep healthy and make sure you take your tablets. Be sure to see your doctor whenever you feel your symptoms are getting worse.