Your doctor may diagnose heart failure based on your symptoms and a physical exam. But you’ll need tests to find the cause and type of heart failure so you can get the right treatment. These tests may include:
- blood tests
- a chest X-ray
- an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
- an echocardiogram
- cardiac catheterization
- a stress test.
An echocardiogram is the best and simplest way to find out if you have heart failure, what type it is and what’s causing it. Your doctor can also use it to see if your heart failure is getting worse. The test can measure how much blood your heart pumps to your body, called an ejection fraction. If your ejection fraction gets lower and you’re having more symptoms, your heart failure is worsening. A normal ejection fraction is 55-60 percent. You can have a normal ejection fraction and still have heart failure.
How is it treated?
Most people with heart failure need to take several medications. These medications may:
- help keep your heart failure from getting worse. These drugs include ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), beta-blockers and vasodilators like hydrazine and nitroglycerin.
- reduce your symptoms so you feel better. These drugs include diuretics (water pills), digoxin and potassium.
- treat the cause of your heart failure, such as valve replacement or repair.
It’s important to take your medication exactly as your doctor tells you to. If you don't, your heart failure could get worse.
Depending on the cause of your heart failure, you may need surgery to help your heart work better. You might have bypass surgery or angioplasty to open clogged arteries, or you may need surgery to repair or replace a heart valve. You might need to have a pacemaker or a defibrillator if you have a problem with your heart rhythm.
Lifestyle changes can help slow down heart failure, and are an important part of your treatment. These changes may also help control other diseases that make heart failure worse, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary artery disease. There are several steps you can take to help:
- Eat less salt (sodium) and limit how much fluid you drink. Sodium causes your body to retain water and makes it harder for your heart to pump. Limit sodium to 1500mg /day and fluid consumption to 64 oz/day.
- Get regular exercise. Your doctor can tell you what level of exercise is safe for you, how to check your pulse, and how to know if you’re doing too much.
- Take rest breaks during the day.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight. Even a few pounds can make a difference.
- Stop smoking. Smoking damages your heart and makes it harder to exercise.
- Limit alcohol. Ask your doctor how much, if any, is safe.
To stay as healthy as possible, work closely with your doctor. Have all your tests, and go to all your appointments. Talk to your doctor before you take any new medicine, including nonprescription and prescription drugs, vitamins and herbs. Some of them could make your heart failure worse. Be sure to keep track of your symptoms. Weigh yourself at the same time every day, and write down your weight. Call your doctor if you have a sudden weight gain (more than 2 pounds per day or 5 pounds per week), a change in your ability to exercise or any sudden change in your symptoms.