Heart Failure Self Management

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couple working on heart failure self management

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure or CHF , is a chronic condition where the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently. While the heart is still working, it simply can’t effectively pump the blood throughout the body causing blood to collect in certain areas—usually the legs, feet and lungs.

While you will need medications to manage this condition, there are also heart failure self management steps you can take, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, to keep the condition and associated symptoms in check.

Types of Heart Failure

There are different types of heart failure including:

  • Left-sided heart failure. The most common type of heart failure, left-sided heart failure occurs when the left ventricle of the heart fails to keep up with the pumping requirements. Blood accumulates in the pulmonary veins, leading to shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and coughing. Symptoms are typically worse during physical activity.
  • Right-sided heart failure. This occurs because of poor pumping action in the right ventricle of the heart. Since the heart is unable to pump enough blood to the lungs, blood builds up in the veins and can leak out to surrounding tissues. Fluid accumulates in the legs and sometimes in the organs, abdomen or even genital region.
  • Biventricular heart failure. This describes a condition where both the right and left side of the heart are affected. Symptoms are the same as those seen in right- and left-sided heart failure.

Stages of Heart Failure

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association classify heart failure in four stages.

  • Stage A. At this stage, you are at high risk of developing heart failure due to family history or specific medical conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes or coronary artery disease.
  • Stage B. If you have changes in your heart function due to a poorly functioning ventricle or structural abnormality in the heart but do not yet have symptoms of heart failure, you are in stage B.
  • Stage C. This stage indicates you have been diagnosed with heart failure and are experiencing symptoms of the condition.
  • Stage D. Your heart failure has reached an advanced stage and does not respond to standard treatment. Your ejection fraction, the test that measures the amount of blood leaving the left ventricle every heartbeat, is reduced, and you may have symptoms even while at rest.

Causes of Heart Failure

Usually, heart failure occurs as the result of another health condition, including the following:

  • Coronary artery disease. When plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the heart, they become narrow and stiff, forcing the heart to work harder. Over time, it can weaken the heart muscle and impact its ability to pump.
  • Myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Scarring caused by a heart attack can reduce the heart’s pumping ability.
  • High blood pressure. The persistent increased pressure on the artery walls can lead to heart failure.
  • Cardiomyopathy. A condition that leads to heart stiffness, enlargement or thickening, cardiomyopathy can interfere with the pumping action of the heart. Over time, the heart muscle becomes weak and heart failure can develop.
  • Heart arrythmias. Irregular heart rhythms that cause the heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly can impact the heart’s ability to pump blood. They may also lead to cardiomyopathy.
  • Diabetes. Complications of diabetes include coronary artery disease, heart attack and atherosclerosis, which contribute to heart failure.

Monitoring Symptoms

Educating yourself on the symptoms of heart failure is the first step in recognizing and managing them. It is important to weigh yourself daily, preferably upon waking first thing in the morning. Monitor your blood pressure numbers daily, or as instructed by your physician. Keep a record of your weight, blood pressure readings and any symptoms you may experience and report any changes to your healthcare provider.

Signs your heart failure is worsening include:

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath with activity or when lying down
  • More swelling than normal in the feet and legs or abdomen
  • Sudden weight gain of 2-3 pounds in a day or 5 plus pounds in a week
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased fatigue
  • Being awakened from sleep by shortness of breath
  • Waking up at night to urinate

Heart Failure Self Management Tips

Lifestyle changes can help in heart failure self management. Following the recommendations below could help slow the progression of the condition and prevent other cardiac complications. Even small changes made over time can be beneficial.

  • Stop smoking.
  • Limit alcohol intake to two drinks a day if you are a man and one if you are a woman.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit sodium intake to 1500 mg or less daily to reduce fluid retention.
  • Limit fluid intake to 8 cups a day.
  • Keep caffeine intake to a minimum.
  • Avoid fast foods and other high sodium foods.
  • Stay physical. Aim to walk or exercise daily for a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity each week.
  • Practice relaxation techniques to reduce stress.
  • Get your rest. Maintain a regular sleep schedule and avoid electronic use before bedtime. If you suffer from insomnia or have trouble staying asleep, consult a sleep specialist.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins such as fish and poultry. Avoid fried and processed foods.
  • See your healthcare provider regularly and keep all scheduled appointments.

While physical activity is important, check with your doctor before beginning an exercise routine. Ask which exercises would be best for you and monitor your breathing during activities. You should limit yourself to exercise that produces only mild or moderate breathlessness.

Fatigue is common in heart failure. This may be due to a weakened heart muscle, thickening or stiffness of the heart muscle, or reduced flow of oxygen or blood to the brain and muscles. Fatigue may also be caused by some of the medications used to treat your heart failure. Diet and exercise can help with fatigue, as can short rest breaks or naps as needed throughout the day.

Medication Routine

Treatment of heart failure is dictated by the type of heart failure you have and the underlying cause. If you have been diagnosed with heart failure, you will be prescribed medication. Learn the reason for the medication, the effects of it and any potential side effects. Take your medication as prescribed and use dose boxes or automated reminders to remember to take your medicines at the right time.

Healthy lifestyle choices are an important part of managing heart failure and can help you lead a full, active, quality life.

The content of this site is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions or treatments.