Heart failure is a devastating ailment that it’s difficult to imagine might ever affect you or someone you care about, but it happens to 6.2 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Because of this, it’s crucial to comprehend what heart failure is and how it can feel. If there are any heart failure warning symptoms at all, the majority of people fail to recognize them. In addition, many heart failure symptoms, particularly when the condition progresses to chronicity, can be hazy or resemble those of other medical conditions, making it possible for some people to have heart failure without being aware of it. Here is some information regarding heart failure that you should be aware of, along with warning signals to watch out for and possible treatments.
What is heart failure, exactly?
Although the term “heart failure” implies that your heart has completely ceased beating, this is not the case. Instead, according to the CDC, heart failure occurs when your heart is unable to efficiently support the other critical organs in your body by pumping enough oxygen-rich blood through your body.
An overview of how your heart works normally is provided below: The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that your heart has four chambers, two of which are on the right and two on the left. Your heart’s two upper chambers are known as the atria (or atrium, depending on which chamber you’re referring to), and its two lower chambers are known as the ventricles. Blood is drawn into your right atrium from your body and sent to your right ventricle, where it is oxygenated in the lungs.
Your lungs’ now oxygen-rich blood next leaves the right atrium and moves to the left ventricle, which sends it to the aorta. The blood supply to the rest of your body is provided by this, which is also your largest artery and the major artery of your heart.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), when you have heart failure, your body often tries to help cure the problem. The heart may enlarge to try to pump more blood, the heart’s muscular mass may increase to support a stronger heartbeat, and the heart may pump more quickly to help the rest of the body receive more blood from the heart. Your body may start to redirect blood away from tissues and organs that are less vital, including your kidneys, and your blood vessels, a complex network of tubes made up of arteries, capillaries, and veins, may also start to constrict in an effort to keep your blood pressure in a healthier range. These outcomes are what cause the various heart failure symptoms to manifest.
What are common heart failure risk factors to be aware of?
According to the Mayo Clinic, heart failure usually results from some sort of heart weakness. It may also occur if your heart becomes overly rigid, which stops it from filling with blood adequately between beats. This issue is more typical in those whose gender at birth is ascribed to that of a woman.
There is a long list of potential risk factors for heart failure because many different health conditions can make your heart weak. Some of the more typical ones to be aware of are listed below:
- Coronary artery disease and heart attack
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Faulty heart valves
- Inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis)
- Congenital heart defect (a heart problem you’re born with)
- Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
- Long-term conditions like diabetes or sleep apnea
- Certain viral infections, including HIV
- Smoking or using tobacco
- Heavy alcohol consumption
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
Heart failure can manifest in different ways in different people at different stages. For instance, the first stage signifies the presence of established risk factors for heart failure but the absence of symptoms, whereas stage four (the ultimate stage) implies the possibility of experiencing heart failure symptoms even while at rest.
Additionally, there are two types of heart failure: acute (which means it begins quickly) and chronic (which means it persists over time). According to Joyce W. Wald, D.O., a cardiologist and professor of clinical medicine at Penn Medicine who specializes in treating heart failure, “chronic heart failure can be treated well with medical therapy, and you may not have any symptoms unless there is an acute problem.” But unless you receive the right care, sudden heart failure frequently produces symptoms.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), if you have a moderate form of heart failure in its early stages, it’s typical to not notice any warning signals unless you’re engaging in physically strenuous activity. However, when the illness worsens and the organ becomes weaker, you can start to experience some symptoms. The signs of heart failure that cardiologists commonly look out for are as follows:
This is frequently one of the first symptoms you’ll notice if you do have heart failure’s early warning signals. When your heart isn’t able to pump blood efficiently, you could find it more difficult to breathe because blood is full of essential oxygen. “When you’re walking around, your heart is not able to pump oxygen and blood to your organs, and you get short of breath,” Pallavi Solanki, M.D., the director of the Heart Failure Clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says to this reporter.
Depending on the type and stage of your heart failure, you might really notice this while you’re sleeping at night. This shortness of breath, for instance, is more palpable when lying flat in the case of congestive heart failure. Fluid and blood might accumulate in your lungs, according to Dr. Solanki. Even while you’re lying down, it could be tough to breathe because of that.
Weakness and exhaustion
According to Dr. Wald, this is also related to the amount of oxygen in your blood. You may experience exhaustion and sluggishness if your heart isn’t pumping enough oxygenated blood to the rest of your body. The “wiped out” experience may result from heart failure because less blood is flowing to your brain, according to 2020 research that was published in the journal Circulation Research.1 You’ll get fatigued pretty quickly, according to Dr. Solanki.
Difficulty engaging in physical activity, such as exercise
Dr. Wald adds that it will be difficult to exercise if different parts of your body aren’t receiving enough blood flow. Exercise can often seem particularly challenging when you have too much fluid in your lungs, the expert adds.
Abdominal, ankle, foot, or leg swelling
Heart failure can start a chain reaction of problems that eventually cause swelling in various body areas. According to Harvard Health specialists, when your kidneys recognize that you’re not getting as much blood flow as usual, they turn on hormones that make your body retain fluid and sodium in an effort to increase the volume of your blood. According to Dr. Wald, this can lead to fluid building up in various places, most frequently in the lower limbs like your legs, ankles, and feet.
Additionally, the accumulation of fluid can result in abdominal edema, which, according to Dr. Solanki, is typically a symptom that the right side of your heart is having issues.
A lack of appetite and nausea
It’s difficult to feel particularly hungry when your abdomen is enlarged from an overabundance of fluid. “Many people with this heart failure symptom are not able to eat much and may have nausea,” explains Dr. Wald
An erratic or fast heartbeat
As heart failure worsens, the organ frequently tries to overcompensate by beating more quickly to improve blood flow throughout the body. Dr. Solanki affirms that some people may experience irregular heartbeats or palpitations.
Continuous wheeze or coughing
According to Dr. Solanki, this is also caused by a buildup of fluid and blood in your lungs. Particularly when there is blood involved, coughing up pink-hued mucus is sometimes a symptom that your heart failure has proceeded to a more severe, advanced stage
Very rapid and mysterious weight gain
Here’s yet additional indication that your body is retaining fluid. “If you see more than a two-pound weight gain in a 24-hour period, that’s potentially a sign of an acute heart failure issue,” Jennifer Wong, M.D., cardiologist and medical director of Non-Invasive Cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, informs us.
Having trouble focusing or being less alert
According to Dr. Wald, people who have significant heart failure may not be getting adequate blood flow to their brains. Your brain doesn’t receive the necessary amount of oxygen as a result, which makes it difficult to stay attentive and concentrated. According to the AHA, you may currently have low sodium levels in your blood, which can make some people confused.
Chest pains might occur when your heart is beating quickly but your upper-body circulation cannot keep up, according to Dr. Solanki. Depending on the individual, the pain may feel anything from slight discomfort to a squeezing sensation to intense, scorching pain. According to the CDC, chest pain may also be an indication of coronary artery disease, which is connected to heart failure and causes your arteries to become extremely thin or entirely obstructed, frequently resulting in a heart attack.
How is heart failure diagnosed?
Your doctor will first review your medical history to find any possible risk factors for heart failure. Then, they’ll perform a physical examination, listening to your heart and lungs for certain noises that could indicate heart failure and looking for indications of fluid buildup in your lungs.
Following that, the Mayo Clinic lists a number of potential tests your doctor might suggest if they think you have heart failure symptoms:
- Blood tests to look for signs of diseases that can impact your heart.
- Chest X-ray to visualize the condition of your lungs and heart.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) to record electrical signals in your heart and determine the timing and length of your heartbeats.
- Echocardiogram to produce images of your heart in motion, along with how well your heart is pumping, via sound waves.
- Stress test to measure the health of your heart during physical activity.
- Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan to collect images of your heart and chest.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create images of your heart via radio waves and a magnetic field.
- Coronary angiogram, where a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel (usually in your wrist or groin artery) and guided to your heart’s arteries to help your doctor search for blood flow blockages.
- Myocardial biopsy, where a small, flexible cord is inserted into a vein in your neck or groin in order to remove very small pieces of your heart muscle to be analyzed.
What may you anticipate from the treatment of heart failure?
According to Dr. Wong, treatment for heart failure aims to significantly lessen or stop your symptoms while hopefully averting consequences like kidney or liver damage.
Heart failure can be treated with a wide variety of drugs. The basic idea is that some medications can assist to relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure, enhance blood flow, and lessen the load on your heart in the early stages. You can get aid from others to get rid of surplus fluid to prevent it from accumulating in your body. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are drugs that can assist strengthen your heart muscle contractions to pump blood more efficiently if you advance to more advanced heart failure stages.
You’ll probably be urged to alter your way of life as well. The AHA states that this can involve things like giving up smoking if you use tobacco, abstaining from alcohol, cutting back on salt or making other dietary changes, engaging in regular exercise, giving sleep top priority, lowering stress levels, monitoring your blood pressure, and more.
Depending on the precise cause of your heart failure, your doctor might also advise particular surgical or medical therapies in more severe cases. These may include choices like coronary bypass surgery, heart valve repair or replacement, a heart transplant, among others.
Overall, there are treatments for each stage that can ease the discomfort of heart failure symptoms. According to Dr. Wong, both medicine and lifestyle changes are crucial. “Some people can manage their lives fairly normally.”
With the correct strategy and support system, Dr. Solanki emphasizes that recovering from a heart failure diagnosis is possible: “I have patients with heart failure who are able to run marathons.”