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Heart Failure Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

November 20, 2023

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, more than 6.2 million Americans have heart failure. The condition is common, and you might be surprised to know that it doesn’t always mean your heart is acutely failing.

It’s natural to make that assumption, though. When you see the word “failure,” nightmares about getting an “F” on a test in middle school may come to mind. But when used to describe your heart health, it’s usually a signal that something’s awry—not that your heart is going to simply fail and stop beating.

Chibuzo Nwokolo, MD

“Heart failure is what’s known as a ‘progressive’ condition,” says Chibuzo Nwokolo, MD, cardiologist with West Tennessee Medical Group Cardiology. “Essentially, when you’re diagnosed with heart failure, it means that your heart isn’t pumping as efficiently as it should. Over time, that can worsen, leading to complications with your heart and your overall health.”

Let’s take a deeper dive into what heart failure is—and what you should know if you’re diagnosed with the condition.

How the Heart Works
When your heart is functioning optimally, it smoothly and efficiently beats, which pumps blood to tissues and organs throughout the body. This helps keep the body’s cells alive, since they rely on the nutrients and oxygen contained in the blood.

Think of the heart muscle as a pump. Blood enters the right atrium of the heart and is pushed through to the right ventricle. The blood flows from the right ventricle into the lungs, where it is infused with oxygen before moving into the left atrium of the heart. It then goes from the left atrium into the left ventricle and out into the body.

When the heart isn’t pumping efficiently, those cells don’t have what they need to function at their best. As the heart’s pumping mechanism begins to falter, the heart will attempt to make up for the deficiency by enlarging, developing more muscle mass, or pumping faster.

As the heart tries to accommodate, it is working harder. This leads to a number of symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue.

What It Means to Have Heart Failure
As mentioned above, heart failure doesn’t mean your heart is immediately failing. It means that your heart isn’t pumping efficiently.

When you’re first diagnosed with heart failure, you may only be experiencing mild or moderate symptoms—or perhaps no symptoms at all. Most people are diagnosed with the condition during an early phase.

Those who are in stages A and B are considered to have “pre-heart failure.” In stage A, you are simply at a high risk of developing heart failure due to factors like having high blood pressure or diabetes. In stage B, you have been diagnosed with heart failure but haven’t had symptoms. 

Those who have stage C heart failure are experiencing symptoms of the condition, such as fatigue, a diminished ability to exercise, weak legs, swollen legs and ankles, and shortness of breath. Stage D is considered end-stage heart failure, meaning it is no longer responsive to treatment.

In most cases, heart failure is progressive rather than acute. That means that it will worsen over time, progressing from one stage to the next. (Note: Congestive heart failure is a specific type of heart failure that requires prompt intervention.)

How Heart Failure Is Diagnosed & Treated
To diagnose heart failure, a medical provider will ask you about any symptoms you are experiencing and conduct a physical exam. This examination will look for signs of heart failure and other conditions that contribute to heart failure. 

If heart failure is suspected, your cardiologist will likely order testing that measures your ejection fraction. Ejection fraction, often abbreviated as EF, shows how well your heart is pumping, looking at both the left and right ventricles. 

If your ejection fraction is below normal, it means the heart isn’t pumping as efficiently as it should, which can show whether you have heart failure and how severe it is.

If you’re diagnosed with heart failure, don’t fret! Many people live long, high-quality lives after a heart failure diagnosis. Your medical provider will recommend a treatment strategy with two key goals—mitigating any symptoms you are experiencing and slowing the progression of heart failure.

First-line treatment for heart failure will include recommendations for lifestyle changes, including exercising regularly, not using tobacco products, and eating a healthy diet. If you have other health conditions that increase your risk of heart failure, such as high cholesterol or diabetes, you’ll want to take steps to carefully manage those conditions.

As the condition progresses, other treatment options for heart failure may include medications, interventional surgery to treat coronary blockages or valve problems, fluid restrictions, implantable devices to moderate heart rhythms, and a reduced-sodium diet.

By attending regular appointments with your medical team, including your cardiologist, and carefully following their recommendations, it is possible to live for many years following a heart failure diagnosis. Taking good care of yourself and paying close attention to your heart health can make a difference!

Whether you’re living with heart failure or have another type of heart health issue, West Tennessee Medical Group has a team of cardiologists who can keep an eye on your heart. Schedule an appointment today.