Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Nearly 700,000 people are diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF) each year. Related symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the underlying cause. Treatment can include lifestyle modifications and medication. Some patients may reach a point where a heart transplant is necessary.

Recognizing Congestive Heart Failure

Resulting from the inability of the heart muscle to sufficiently pump enough oxygen and nutrients to the rest of the body, congestive heart failure can present fairly vague symptoms. There’s often an underlying health issue, such as coronary artery disease or damage to the heart muscle from sources other than arterial flow problems (cardiomyopathy), that’s impairing the heart’s ability to function properly.


A physical exam and lab tests can confirm CHF. Medical history and general health are also taken into account since patients with existing conditions such as kidney disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes tend to be at a higher risk.


What are the Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure?

Symptoms include

  • Shortness of breath with no clear reason
  • Fatigue, general weakness, or dizziness
  • Swelling (usually in arms, legs, ankles, or feet)
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats

Congestive Heart Failure Causes

Damage to the heart muscle causes congestive heart failure. There are several conditions that can cause this damage. Coronary artery disease is a common cause of heart failure by blocking blood flow, but many other conditions that overwork the heart and/or cause damage to it can lead to congestive heart failure. These include cardiomyopathy that is caused by drug abuse, alcohol abuse or from certain infections. A heart attack can also cause this condition with the scarring that it causes to the heart muscles. After a heart attack, the damaged area does not function effectively.

High blood pressure causes this condition by forcing the heart to overwork itself. The same can be done by some thyroid diseases, diabetes, heart valve disease, kidney disease, obesity and congenital heart defects. Some patients have more than one of these conditions at once.

How is Congestive Heart Failure Treated?

Treatment includes

Mild forms of heart failure are often treated with adjustments to diet and lifestyle. The goal of treatment for congestive heart failure is to minimize symptoms and improve quality of life. Beta-blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, and diuretics (water pills) are among the medications commonly prescribed to restore normal blood flow.


Ventricular assist devices may be surgically inserted during later stages of heart failure. A cardiac defibrillator is sometimes recommended. A heart transplant is a last resort and only suggested if other treatment options are no longer effective.

The American Heart Association recommends preventative measures such as regular exercise and a balanced diet that includes fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Keeping blood pressure within a normal range, monitoring cholesterol levels, and getting regular physical exams can also help reduce the risk of experiencing congestive heart failure.

Congestive Heart Failure Prevention

Some causes of congestive heart failure, including heart defects present at birth, are not possible to prevent at present. However, there are several conditions that cause heart failure that can be avoided with certain lifestyle changes. Smoking is a major risk factor, and avoiding smoking or quitting as soon as possible lowers the risk. Living with a smoker is almost as much of a risk.

Eating a healthy diet that is low in fat and salt and high in protein can help most people with avoiding high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Avoiding so much sugar and refined grains is also helpful. Get regular exercise to keep your heart as healthy as possible. In addition to helping to stabilize weight, exercise can strengthen the heart. Drinking alcohol in moderation and avoiding illegal drugs are both important factors in avoiding congestive heart failure. If heart failure runs in your family, be alert to any conditions you have that can cause heart damage. Be sure to tell your doctor about this family history before any medication is prescribed.