What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Medicare allows patients with congestive heart failure to attend cardiac rehab; what is congestive heart failure?

Congestive heart failure occurs when your heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Conditions such as narrowed arteries in your heart or high blood pressure gradually leave your heart too weak or stiff to fill and pump efficiently.

Heart failure affects nearly 6 million Americans. Roughly 670,000 people are diagnosed with heart failure each year. It is the leading cause of hospitalization in people older than 65.

Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped working. Rather, the heart’s pumping power is weaker than normal. Blood moves through the heart and body at a slower rate and pressure in the heart increases. As a result, the heart cannot pump enough oxygen and nutrients to meet the body's needs. The chambers of the heart may respond by stretching to hold more blood to pump through the body or by becoming stiff and thickened. This helps to keep the blood moving, but the heart muscle walls may eventually weaken and become unable to pump as efficiently. As a result, the kidneys may respond by causing the body to retain fluid and salt. If fluid builds up in the arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs, or other organs, the body becomes congested, and congestive heart failure is the term used to describe the condition.

Heart failure is caused by many conditions that damage the heart muscle, including:

  • Coronary artery disease, a disease of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart, causes decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. If the arteries become blocked or severely narrowed, the heart becomes starved for oxygen and nutrients.
  • Heart attack, which occurs when a coronary artery becomes suddenly blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart muscle. A heart attack damages the heart muscle, resulting in a scarred area that does not function properly.

  • Cardiomyopathy, which is damage to the heart muscle from causes other than artery or blood flow problems, such as from infections or alcohol or drug abuse.

Conditions that overwork the heart like high blood pressure, valve disease, thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or heart defects present at birth can all cause heart failure. In addition, heart failure can occur when several diseases or conditions are present at once.

Not all conditions that lead to heart failure can be reversed, but treatments can improve the signs and symptoms of heart failure and help you live longer. Lifestyle changes, such as exercising, reducing salt in your diet, managing stress and losing weight, can improve your quality of life.

Recently, Medicare approved payment for patients with congestive heart failure to attend cardiac rehab.  This program will allow patients to exercise in a safe environment while also receiving education to learn to function with this disease as well as prevent and detect worsening symptoms.  If you have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, you may qualify for the program so ask your doctor/cardiologist for a referral.  Feel free to call our department at (715) 258-1183 to speak with a registered nurse about our program. 

By Stephanie Yenter, registered nurse and coordinator of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at Riverside Medical Center, Waupaca.