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Congestive Heart Failure - The Basics

By understanding some basics about congestive heart failure (CHF) and its symptoms, you will be better prepared to care for your loved one and talk to his or her physicians. This section provides general information about how the heart works and how CHF affects the heart and other organs.

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Although the disease is called "heart failure," the heart is not actually failing. It is losing its ability to pump blood effectively which has a negative effect on most bodily functions. Because a weakened heart moves less blood with each pump, fluid backs up in the lungs. As a result, the body does not receive enough oxygen. The kidneys cannot work properly in removing excess fluid from the body and fluid accumulates in parts of the body, particularly the feet and lower legs. The body becomes "congested" with fluid - hence the phrase, "congestive" heart failure. CHF is a progressive and eventually fatal illness.

What Causes CHF?

More than five million Americans have CHF. The most common cause is blockage of the coronary arteries, either with or without a previous heart attack. Other causes include:

How Does CHF Progress?

Congestive heart failure is a progressive, chronic disease. This means that that it is a long-term condition that worsens over time and although the symptoms can be treated, the disease cannot be cured.

In the early stages of CHF, the heart tries to compensate by:

Because the heart can compensate, people can live with heart failure for quite some time before it is diagnosed. Eventually, the heart cannot keep up, and a person loses energy, gets short of breath, or experiences other problems that lead to a doctor's visit.

How is Heart Failure Diagnosed?

Several tests can be done to determine whether or not a person has CHF. These tests determine whether the heart is working as well as it should be, and if it is not, where the problem lies. Common tests include chest x-rays, echocardiography, cardiac catheterization, stress and blood tests, and MUGA scans.