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An introduction to the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of heart failure

Heart failure happens when the heart’s pumping power is weaker than normal. Although the heart still beats, a weakened heart pumps too little blood rich with oxygen and nutrients to meet the needs of the body. Consequently, the body cannot handle as much activity. With a weakened heart, walking, carrying groceries, or climbing stairs can be difficult. Your loved one with heart failure may feel short of breath because his or her body is not getting all the oxygen it needs. Blood and fluids may collect or “pool” in the lungs causing breathing problems when your loved one lies down. Fluids can also collect in other parts of the body, causing a swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, and abdomen.

Symptoms Of Heart Failure

  • Difficulty breathing, especially with exertion or when lying flat in bed
  • Waking up breathless
  • Frequent dry, hacking cough, especially when lying down
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Swollen feet, ankles, and legs (edema)
  • Nausea, with abdominal swelling, pain, and tenderness

Other medical problems can cause some of the same symptoms. A thorough physical exam and a complete health history, plus certain tests are needed to diagnose heart failure and find its possible causes.

Diagnosing the Problem

Since heart failure can resemble other medical problems, your loved one should get a physical exam from a health professional. The doctor will probably want to know the answers to one or more of the following questions:

  • What type of symptoms is your loved one experiencing, and how long has he or she had them?
  • Has your loved one ever had a heart attack, heart murmur, or other heart problems? If so, how are these problems being treated?
  • What other health problems does your loved one have? How are they being treated? Is his or her diet or exercise restricted? Have other family members had heart problems?
  • What does your loved one do to prevent health problems?
  • Does your loved one use tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs?
  • What about your loved one’s lifestyle? What’s a typical day in his or her life like?

Encourage your loved one to be honest and candid. Evaluating, treating, and managing heart failure depends on accurate information. For most people, heart failure is a chronic condition, which means it can be treated and managed, but not cured. However, if your loved one’s problems are the result of other medical conditions, such as blocked coronary arteries or heart valve disease, surgery may help.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Living With Heart Disease: Is It Heart Failure? AHCPR Publication No. 94-0614, developed by the United States Agency for Health Care Policy and Research.

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