A diagnosis of heart failure means that your heart is having trouble pumping enough blood to meet your body’s needs. Your heart muscle may have been weakened by damage from any of these causes (although in some cases, there is no apparent cause):
A prior heart attack
Coronary artery disease (clogged blood vessels)
High blood pressure
An arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm)
Diseases of the heart muscle or valves
People who have these or other risk factors for heart failure should get regular physical examinations. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop or reverse the progression of heart failure.
When the heart is so weak that it can't handle a normal, healthy volume of blood, heart failure sets in. As blood travels from the lungs to the heart, it may back up. If fluid stays in the lungs, breathing becomes difficult. The build up of fluid is the reason for the term “congestive heart failure.” A heart that is “failing” has damaged or stretched muscle. The damage can impair the electrical system in the heart. If this happens, the heartbeat may be too fast, too slow, or unsteady. Heart rhythm problems are common in heart failure patients.
A physical examination, medical history, blood tests and heart tests are key to diagnosis.
Tests can determine how severe the condition is and identify the best treatments.
Regular physical examinations are important, especially for those at high risk for heart failure. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop or reverse the progression of heart failure.
What are the signs and symptoms of heart failure?
In the early stages, you might not be aware of any symptoms. But as heart disease progresses, one or more of the following symptoms may begin to appear:
Shortness of breath (dyspnea) – A feeling of breathlessness, as if you can’t get enough air, may come on during physical activity, and may even come out of nowhere when you’re at rest. It may wake you up at night and leave you feeling exhausted in the morning, even after a full night of sleep. (Propping yourself up with extra pillows may help you breathe more easily at night.)
Fatigue – Activities that didn’t feel strenuous to you before, such as walking or climbing stairs, may easily tire you out. You may even feel exhausted while resting, when you haven’t been active at all.
Chronic coughing or wheezing – Fluid congestion (a buildup of fluid in the lungs) is common with heart failure, and is the reason why doctors often refer to it as “congestive heart failure” (CHF). This congestion can make you wheeze and cough; some people cough up mucus or phlegm.
Fluid retention or swelling – Fluid also can build up in other parts of your body, such as your feet, ankles, legs and abdomen. Swelling, or edema, is the most obvious sign of fluid buildup, but weight gain also may be a signal. This fluid buildup makes some people lose their appetite or feel nauseated.
Rapid or irregular heartbeat – Your weakened heart may try to beat faster to send more blood through your system, making you feel like your heart is racing. Or it may trigger an arrhythmia, which can cause palpitations, heart pounding or other symptoms.
Confusion – The reduced blood flow to your brain may cause feelings of confusion, impaired thinking or mental sluggishness.