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Overview

If you've been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, the feeling of your chest constricting can be scary. With congestive heart failure, the heart’s capacity to pump blood cannot keep up with the body’s need. As the heart weakens, blood begins to back up and force liquid through the capillary walls. The term “congestive” refers to the resulting buildup of fluid in the ankles and feet, arms, lungs, and/or other organs.

Almost 6 million Americans have congestive heart failure. However, with the correct treatment, patients can recover to good health. 

What causes congestive heart failure?

The most common cause of congestive heart failure is coronary artery disease. Risk factors for coronary artery disease include:

  • high levels of cholesterol and/or triglyceride in the blood
  • high blood pressure
  • poor diet
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • being overweight or obese
  • stress

In addition to coronary artery disease, several other conditions can damage the heart muscles, including inherited and genetic factors, some infections and autoimmune diseases and some treatments such as chemotherapy.

What are the symptoms of congestive heart failure?

Most commonly, a patient may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, problems with the heart’s rhythm called arrhythmias, and edema—or fluid buildup—in the legs. Symptoms may be mild or severe and may not always be noticeable.

How is congestive heart failure diagnosed?

Patients will typically have an intake visit with a heart specialist and nurse or physician’s assistant. During this visit, a review of the patient’s prior records and his or her current health status is incorporated to establish a picture of where the patient is along the spectrum, and then a plan is established for prognosis and treatment. 

The process often takes more than one meeting and involves both the patient’s local cardiologist or referring physician.

How is congestive heart failure treated?

Doctors will assess the current health status of the patient to establish a baseline, and develop a long-term health plan with the goal of improving the patient’s health. This may involve the optimization of medicines and therapies, adding new medication, or possibly enrollment in a clinical trial.

Stabilizing and/or reversing a patient’s condition often involves long-term, collaborative follow-up with a referring cardiologist or physician.

In serious situations, advanced therapies, which include mechanical solutions, a heart transplant, or hospice, may be offered.

What is the outlook for heart failure patients?

There are medicines and treatments that reverse many cases of heart failure, and in most cases, the outlook is generally very good.

What makes Yale Medicine’s approach to treating congestive heart failure unique?

Yale Medicine’s multidisciplinary team comprises heart failure cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, dedicated advanced-practice, registered nurses and nurse coordinators, dietitians, exercise physiologists, financial counselors, immunologists specializing in transplants, psychologists, and specialists in palliative care.

With a multidisciplinary approach, Yale Medicine physicians include the patient’s desires as well as input from the family to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that's right for them.