Symptoms of heart failure may be subtle, but it's important to know when to see a doctor.
Heart failure is a serious chronic condition that can affect your heart's ability to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to your body. Early symptoms are often subtle and many people attribute them to normal signs of aging. But if you have heart failure, knowing about it as early as possible can help you treat the symptoms and prevent further damage to your heart.
What causes heart failure?
Heart failure occurs when something damages the heart muscle or affects its ability to effectively pump blood through your body. Damage to the heart may come from:
- Coronary artery disease
- Prior heart attack
- Faulty heart valves
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- Genetic heart disease
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
One way to remember heart failure symptoms is to think of the acronym FACES. Developed by the Heart Failure Society of America, this acronym stands for:
- Fatigue – When the heart is not pumping well enough, you may notice you get more tired than you used to.
- Activity Limitation – If you are tired or experience shortness of breath due to heart failure, it can be harder to perform the normal activities you're used to doing.
- Congestion – You may cough, wheeze or have trouble breathing more than usual due to fluid build-up in the lungs.
- Edema – You may retain fluid or notice swelling, especially in your ankles and legs, because your heart doesn't pump well enough to force blood back up from the lower extremities.
- Shortness of Breath – You may find it harder to breathe or may become short of breath. This is because fluid in the lungs makes it harder for your lungs to fill with oxygen.
These symptoms are indications that your heart may not be as strong as it used to be. Some symptoms may also occur due to other conditions, including chronic diseases like asthma or COPD, as well as temporary illnesses like the flu or bronchitis. If you experience these symptoms and they don't quickly go away, it's best to see a doctor.
How is heart failure diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, review your medical history and perform a physical exam. If heart failure is suspected, an echocardiogram may be ordered. This is a non-invasive test used to view the structure and function of your heart. It can determine how much blood leaves the heart when the ventricle contracts, referred to as the ejection fraction. This indicates how well or poorly the heart is pumping. The test also allows doctors to see if there is any abnormal thickening or enlargement of the heart, and how the heart valves are functioning. Blood work and other diagnostic tests may also be recommended.
How is heart failure treated?
If you have heart failure, your doctor will work to determine the underlying cause. The most common treatment for heart failure is medication. Although there is no cure for heart failure, symptoms may improve with proper treatment. In some cases, the heart may even become stronger.
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