Congestive Heart Failure. What is it? What can we do?

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) describes a gradual weakening of the heart over time.  As it weakens, the body tries to compensate.  With the weakening, the heart may have to pump faster to maintain the blood pressure.  Blood and oxygen are diverted from some parts of the body, such as muscles, to keep organs working.

Eventually the body can’t keep up and symptoms begin to appear:

  • Shortness of breath with little exertion.
  • Fatigue with little or no activity.
  • Swelling in the ankles and feet due to inability to pump fluids back to heart.
  • Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary congestion) creates breathing problems.
  • Problems thinking clearly or a confused state of mind, due to lack of oxygenated blood.
  • Weight gain from the fluids but muscle loss from lack of oxygen and nutrients.


  • Coronary Artery Disease clogs heart arteries with thick plaque.
  • High Blood Pressure (hypertension) can weaken the heart.
  • Diabetes fails to remove sugar from the blood, which can harm the heart.
  • Heart Muscle Disease (Cardiomyopathy) can be triggered by an injury or infection.
  • Faulty Heart Valves prevent the heart from pumping efficiently.
  • Thyroid disorders – too little or too much – overworks the heart.
  • Alcohol or illegal drug abuse can injure the heart muscle.



“A number of medications, include something as simple as aspirin, could help the conditions creating the heart failure,” says McLeod Cardiologist Evans Holland, MD.  “Specific medications and dosage amounts will be decided in conjunction with your cardiologist.”

  • ACE inhibitors cause blood vessels that lead away from the heart to expand, making blood flow easier.
  • Beta Blockers ease the body’s stress reaction, reducing hormones that speed the heart.
  • Diuretics (water pills) trigger the body to reduce the extra fluid, causing a need to urinate frequently.
  • Digoxin and other similar drugs improve the heart’s ability to beat stronger and pump more blood.


Diet. Restrict the amount of fluid you drink.  Eat a low fat, heart-healthy diet.  Sodium can increase fluid retention.  So, eat a low-salt diet.  If you are taking diuretics that help eliminate fluids from your system, your doctor may want you to take extra potassium.

Lifestyle.  Exercise helps. Regular aerobic exercise can help reduce blood pressure, as well as control the body’s trigger for adrenalin, which causes the heart to beat faster.  Once your heart is controlled, resistance training can help to rebuild weakened or withered muscles. Therapists or trainers at a facility, such as the McLeod Health & Fitness Center or the Loris Center for Health & Fitness can work with your doctors to develop an exercise plan.


Heart failure is a progressive disease and will be fatal if you don’t act.  However, don’t panic if you have one of the signs or symptoms mentioned above.  If you have two or more symptoms, see your personal physician as soon as possible.

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Sources include: McLeod Health, National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, Heart Failure Society of America