Congestive heart failure (CHF) or more commonly known as heart failure, is a chronic progressive condition which affects the pumping power of the heart. It refers to a condition where there is an excessive build-up of fluids around the heart which ultimately reduces the pumping efficiency of the heart.
The heart has four chambers, the upper half comprises of two atria, while the lower comprises of two ventricles, which are responsible for pumping blood to the body’s organs and tissues. On the other hand, atria receive the blood which circulates back from the rest of the body. Congestive heart failure develops when this process is effected causing the ventricles to pump less blood than required by the body. It causes the blood and fluids to accumulate in the lungs, abdomen, liver or lower body.
Congestive heart failure can be life-threatening if proper and timely treatment is not received.
Types of Congestive Heart Failure
The most common type of CHF is the left-sided one, where the left ventricle does not pump enough blood to the body. And as the condition progresses, it leads to an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, making it extremely difficult for a person to breathe.
Two most common types of left-sided heart failure include:
Systolic heart failure: This occurs when the left ventricle fails to function especially contract normally. This problem reduces the force required to push the blood into circulation, thus leading to inefficient heart pumping process.
Diastolic failure: Also known as diastolic dysfunction, occurs when the muscles of the left ventriclebecome too stiff and hence, do not relax as often as they should leading to lack of proper pumping function.
Right-side CHF occurs when the right ventricle has a problem in pumping the blood to the lungs, causing the blood to back up in the blood vessels. This leads to fluid retention in the lower extremities, abdomen and other important organs.
A person can have both left and right side congestive heart failure; however, in most cases, it begins from the left-side and spreads to the right thereafter.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure can be an ongoing condition (chronic) or can be acute, implying it can develop suddenly. Some of the most common symptoms of congestive heart failure include:
- Acute shortness of breath, especially while exerting or lying down
- Fatigue and weakness
- Swollen legs, ankles and feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Reduced stamina or the ability to do physical exercise
- Consistent cough
- Consistent wheezing along with phlegm
- Increased urge to urinate at night
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Fluid retention
- Unexplainable and rapid weight gain
- Lack of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme and sudden shortness of breath along with cough with pink or foamy mucus
- Chest pain (mostly when the CHF is a because of a heart attack)
While these symptoms must be cautiously screened for and in case of doubt, medical help should be immediately sought. However, on the other hand, certain warning signs indicate an urgent need for medical attention, lack of which can cause severe problems including the death of the person.
One must seek emergency treatment if experiencing the following warning signs:
- Acute chest pain
- Severe weakness or fainting
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat along with chest pain, shortness of breath or lack of consciousness
- Sudden, unexplainable shortness of breath with pink and foamy mucus
Even though these warning signs indicate congestive heart failure, yet merely their presence does not confirm the presence of one. In some cases, the symptoms might indicate a life-threatening lung or heart disease.
Causes of Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure often occurs when certain heart conditions have damaged or weakened the heart. That said, it can also happen if the heart becomes too stiff to perform well. In a heart failure condition, the chambers of the heart may become too stiff and not efficiently fill between the beats. In other cases of heart failure, the heart muscles can become damaged and weak, causing the ventricles to stretch and dilate to a point that it leads to inefficient pumping of the blood in the body.
Over time, the condition worsens and when the heart can withhold the increased pumping pressure, it tends to cause symptoms and can worsen the patient’s overall health. The pumping function of the heart can be assessed by the ejection function which should ideally be 50 per cent implying that with each beat, the heart pumps out more than half the blood filling the ventricle.
But sometimes even with a normal ejection rate, a person can experience a heart failure since the muscles of the heart can become too stiff due to underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure.
Some of the other conditions that can weaken or damage the heart muscles and make them stiff include:
- Coronary artery disease and heart attack
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Damaged heart valves
- Damaged heart muscles
- Congenital heart defects
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Other diseases including diabetes, HIV, a build-up of protein or iron, etc.
Among other causes of heart failure, there are viruses which attack the heart muscles, severe infections, allergic reactions, clotting in the lungs, or certain medications, or any other illness which severely impacts the whole body.
However, congestive heart failure can be avoided by taking precautions such as healthy-balanced diet, physical workout, and more. On the other hand, it can also be treated effectively to reduce complications provided it is diagnosed early or medical help is sought well within time.