Heart failure

This can be defined as the inability of the heart to perform its normal function. By that we mean it is less effective at pumping blood around the body which causes a build up of fluid and an irregular heartbeat.

This results in an impaired blood flow which is unable to meet the body’s demands for vital nutrients and oxygen.

There are several causes of this which include high blood pressure. High blood pressure puts a strain on your heart which causes the muscle to weaken and behave in an ineffective manner. This damage occurs over a long period of time.

Eventually the heart starts to buckle under this strain. This is further compounded by damage inflicted on it via a heart attack.

Causes of heart failure

It is difficult to pinpoint these exactly due to changeable variables such as age, population growth and difficulties in obtaining an accurate diagnosis. Plus there are several other conditions which mimic the symptoms of heart failure.

Probable causes include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease (usually occurs in older people)
  • Ischaemic heart disease (reduced blood flow to the heart)
  • Cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)

Other much rarer causes include:

  • Side effects of certain types of medication
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Myocarditis (infection of the heart muscle)
  • Connective tissue disorder e.g. lupus
  • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Sleep apnoea

It can be difficult to diagnose due to the lack of a universal definition. The term ‘heart failure’ is often applied to other heart conditions such as a heart attack but this is incorrect.

Symptoms of heart failure

Heart failure leads to a build up of fluid in the body which causes a whole range of symptoms, but, these symptoms vary according to which side of the heart is affected.

Note : when we say ‘side of the heart’ we mean either the left ventricle (left hand side) or right ventricle (right hand side).

So, if the left side of the heart is affected then you will experience fatigue, breathlessness and may cough up frothy looking phlegm. This is caused by not enough blood being circulated around your body.

Plus if more blood enters your lungs than can be dealt with by your heart then this will cause a build up of fluid which results in symptoms mentioned above.

However, if the right side of your heart is affected then fluid also builds up, the effects of which can be seen via swollen legs, ankles and feet. You will experience extreme tiredness as well.

How is heart failure diagnosed?

The tests performed for this are usually the same ones that were carried out to confirm your high blood pressure diagnosis. So you will undergo a blood test, ECG (electrocardiogram) and an echocardiogram.

Treatment for heart failure

Heart failure cannot be cured but it can be treated. Your GP will want to find the cause of this so that he/she doesn’t just treat the symptoms.

If your heart failure is caused by high blood pressure then medication such as ACE inhibitors and/or diuretics will be prescribed. You may also be asked to make a few lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking and eating healthily.

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